Can Dogs Live with Brain Tumors?

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Introduction

Brain tumor — the mere mention of those two words in relation to your furry friend is enough to send a shiver down any dog owner's spine. Brain tumors are cancerous masses that are understandably a very serious problem, but you may be surprised to learn that they're actually relatively common in older dogs.

Learning that your dog has been diagnosed with a brain tumor is devastating news for any pet owner, and the prognosis for this form if cancer is generally poor. However, there are treatment options available to improve your pet's quality of life and hopefully extend the time you get to share with them.

Signs and Symptoms of Brain Tumors

The signs of brain tumors can vary widely depending on where the tumor is located in the brain and also on its size. As a result, there's a wide range of symptoms that could potentially indicate a brain tumor, and those symptoms may appear suddenly or progress over a period of weeks or months.

Often, one of the first symptoms to be detected is seizures. Distressing to watch, these cause your dog to collapse, thrash around on the ground and salivate profusely. However, just because your dog has a seizure doesn't necessarily mean they have a brain tumor — for example, a two-year-old dog that starts having seizures is more likely to have epilepsy, whereas a 10-year-old dog with a sudden onset of seizures is more likely to have a brain tumor.

Other signs that are commonly seen include changes in the dog's personality, lethargy, circling with a head tilt, disorientation, decreased vision, and depression. These symptoms can worsen as the disease progresses, producing more severe neurological symptoms like pacing and circling, more severe seizures, collapse and even coma.

All of this sounds like pretty scary stuff — and it is — but there are usually some treatment options available for your pet. Getting them checked out by a veterinarian as soon as possible will help you get to the bottom of their problems and work out the best course of action.

Body Language

Keep a close eye on your dog's body language for any clues or signs that they may be suffering from a brain tumor, such as:
  • Pacing
  • Weakness
  • Head turning
  • Dropped Ears

Other Signs

Other signs you may notice include:
  • Seizures
  • Behavioral changes
  • Loss of balance
  • Lethargy and depression
  • Decreased vision
  • Confusion and disorientation

The Science of Brain Tumors in Dogs

A tumor is a growth of abnormal cells within body tissue, in this case, within the cavity of the skull associated with the brain. Brain tumors can be primary, which means they originate inside the brain, or secondary, which is when they spread to the brain from other parts of the body.
Common primary brain tumors include:
  • Meningioma: A tumor that develops from the cells that form the lining of the surface of the brain. This is the most common form of brain tumor in dogs.
  • Ependymoma: A tumor that develops from the ependymal supporting cells of the brain and spinal cord.
  • Choroid plexus tumor: A tumor that develops in the choroid plexus (a network of blood vessels and cells that produces cerebrospinal fluid).
  • Glioma: A tumor found within the tissue of the brain.
Though rarely seen in younger animals, these tumors are common in older dogs, usually occurring in animals over five years of age. While there's no definitive cause of brain tumors, dietary, environmental, genetic, chemical, and a range of other factors can all play their part. Golden Retrievers, Boxers and the Dobermann Pinscher are just some of the breeds that may be genetically predisposed to brain tumors.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Brain Tumors

The brain is well shielded by the skull and most tumors won't cause any significant changes to a dog's blood tests, so advanced imaging of the brain is required for an accurate diagnosis. CT scans and MRIs are both pain-free and non-invasive imaging techniques, but because your dog must lie still for the procedure, they need to be performed under general anesthesia.

Recent decades have seen some pretty remarkable advances in veterinary medicine and the technology available to help our furry friends. The good news is that brain tumors can often be treated; the bad news is that they can rarely be cured.

The main focus is on providing your pooch with the best quality of life for as long as possible. Sometimes the focus will be on specific treatment, such as surgical removal, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. For example, meningiomas, the most common form of tumor, are typically slow growing and can usually be treated. Meanwhile, gliomas are often located deeper within the brain and may not be accessible for surgical removal, making radiation therapy or chemotherapy a preferred option. 

In other cases, supportive treatment may be recommended. This could include anti-epileptic drugs to prevent seizures as well as steroids to try and slow the growth of the tumor.

However, the treatment and prognosis vary depending on the type of tumor involved, while the overall health of your dog can also play a part when determining the best course of action.

Survival time also varies depending on the type of tumor involved and the health of your pooch. The complete surgical removal of a solitary cerebral meningioma can result in an excellent prognosis, but tumors that are either left untreated or that are particularly aggressive can progress quickly.

So while dogs can live with brain tumors, it's simply not possible to provide a 'one size fits all' estimate of your dog's prognosis and what their quality of life will be like in that time. There are simply too many variables and accurate advice can only be given on a case-by-case basis, so speak to your vet or other treating specialist about any questions you may have.

How to Care For a Dog with a Brain Tumor:

  • Your veterinarian and veterinary oncologist will be able to provide tips and advice on how to best manage your dog's condition.
  • Provide easy access to food and water.
  • Provide ramps and stairs so that your dog can easily access all areas of the home, and provide safety gates to block off areas where there is a risk of falls.
  • Modify any slippery surfaces to provide increased grip.
  • Feed a prescription diet that promotes brain function.
  • Limit your pet's stress levels and always handle them gently and with caution.
  • Follow any instructions regarding the administering and dosage of medications.