"Identifying acute leukaemia in dogs

"Identifying acute leukaemia in dogs

Health & Safety

Leukaemia is a form of cancer that develops in the blood or none marrow, and that can come in a huge range of different formats that can affect both dogs and other animals including cats and people. One of the most aggressive and fast-growing forms of leukaemia that can affect dogs is known as acute leukaemia, or acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, to give it its full medical name.

While the condition tends to be more likely to affect mature and elderly dogs, and the risk factors for the condition increase as the dog ages, it can affect dogs of any age, and of any breed or type. Because the condition is aggressive and fast to spread, the various symptoms that accompany the condition can be subtle and easy to overlook until they are very advanced, which makes treatment very difficult and sometimes ineffective.

Understanding the symptoms of acute leukaemia and being able to spot them as early as possible will give your dog the best chance of potential survival, as early treatment is the key to giving your dog the best chance of surviving the condition.

In this article, we will look at identifying acute leukaemia in dogs in detail, including how the disease affects dogs, and how to spot potential symptoms. Read on to learn more.

More about acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in dogs

Acute leukaemia is a type of aggressive cancer that occurs in the bone marrow, the part of the body responsible for producing blood cells. When leukaemia is present, the bone marrow no longer produces these normal healthy blood cells, but instead begins producing cancerous lymphoblasts and prolymphocyte cells instead. When the cancerous cells produced by the bone marrow reaches a 30% or higher level of your dog’s total blood cells, this is what we class as acute leukaemia.

When a dog’s bone marrow is producing cancerous cells but in lower levels below 30%, this is referred to as chronic leukaemia, which is slower to develop and less aggressive.

Unfortunately, the cause of acute leukaemia in dogs is still unknown, and so dog owners cannot realistically work to prevent or reduce the risk factors for the condition. Research is ongoing into the causes of the disease, and some of the advised opinions regarding the cause of the condition include toxin exposure, the presence of environmental carcinogens, and other medical conditions-although ultimately, nobody knows for sure.

The symptoms of acute leukaemia in dogs

The symptoms of acute leukaemia in dogs, like many other internal conditions, can be both very subtle and highly variable, making it challenging to identify the disease until it has become very pronounced and is having an obvious and systemic effect on the dog.

Some of the external symptoms of acute leukaemia in dogs may include:

  • Very small flecks of purple or red appearing on the surface of the skin, which can be easy to miss due to the dog’s fur. Grooming regularly and parting the fur to view the skin can help to make this symptom easier to spot.
  • An extreme thirst that leads to the dog drinking much more than normal and continually seeking out water.
  • Increased urination as a result of this.
  • Pale mucous membranes in the gums and eyelids.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Weight loss.
  • Generalised lethargy and a reluctance to exercise and play.
  • Fatigue and exercise intolerance.
  • In some cases, affected dogs may develop a limp in one or more legs, due to the way the condition affects healthy bones and bone marrow.

How is acute leukaemia diagnosed?

In order to make a definitive diagnosis of acute leukaemia in your dog, your vet will need to run some blood tests and take a tissue sample from your dog for testing. The presence of an unusually high level of white blood cells –above around 30%-in your dog’s blood and bone marrow indicates a diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

Can the condition be treated?

Because acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is such an aggressive and fast-growing condition that is hard to diagnose early on, treating the condition effectively can be very challenging due to the systemic effect that leukaemia has upon the whole of the dog’s body.

A concerted effort to save the dog will likely involve an inpatient stay in the clinic for several days or even longer, during which time the dog may be given blood transfusions or plasma transfusions and treated with chemotherapy. Radiotherapy is not indicated in the treatment of leukaemia, because the condition is systemic rather than restricted to a tumour or localised growth in one area of the body.

In cases that are either caught early and so, have a good chance of recovery or that on the other hand are very advanced and so treatment will be concerned with improving the dog’s quality of life and delaying the terminal stage of the condition, chemotherapy alone may be used. This can often be administered on an outpatient basis for home care.

The prognosis for affected dogs can be highly variable-but it is important to keep in mind that acute leukaemia is systemic and aggressive, and that affected dogs may not recover, or a decision is made to provide palliative care only due to quality of life considerations.

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