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Spleen problems in dogs
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Spleen problems in dogs

Dogs
Health & Safety

One of the big organs in the body is the spleen and in dogs it is not uncommon for this organ to have problems. Although not a routine procedure, when a veterinary surgeon performs a splenectomy (removal of the spleen), it ultimately can save the dog’s life. There are two common reasons why a dog will need to undergo a splenectomy and these are for a ruptured spleen, or a splenic tumour. These conditions are discussed further on in this article.

The most important issue to resolve when a dog presents to a vet with symptoms that maybe linked to a spleen problem is that of rapid diagnosis. Only by swift diagnosis and treatment can dogs with spleen problems be saved. Splenic problems can arise in dogs regardless of their age (although some occur more often in older dogs), so it is always important for a complete history to be obtained from the owner, as all details can help.

So what is a spleen?

Many people have heard of a spleen but are unsure of its role in the body. It does have a main role of being a blood storage organ – think of it as a blood reservoir. It also helps make red blood cells, assists in the filtering out and removal of old blood cells, and the spleen also helps to fight infection – as part of the immune system.

It is situated in the body near the stomach, on the left side of the abdomen. Size wise it is larger than a kidney, but smaller than the liver. Many books will often describe it as a slipper shape, due to its curves and being long and narrow. Because it is a blood storage organ it is full of blood vessels and is easily spotted, when a dog goes under surgery to the area, because of its deep red colour.

What are the symptoms of a spleen problem?

Symptoms may come on quickly for a splenic tumour, even though the tumour may have been growing slowly or very rapidly if the spleen is ruptured - usually by accident.

Splenic tumour symptoms include:

  • Tiredness.
  • Swollen abdomen.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Anaemia – normally visible by very white gums or by checking the eyelids which are normally pink.

Ruptured spleen (one that is bleeding heavily) symptoms may include:

  • Weakness.
  • Collapse.
  • Shock.
  • Possibly death.

As you can see from the above list, a ruptured spleen is a medical emergency – with time of the essence to save the dog’s life.

How will the vet diagnose a spleen problem in my dog?

As said before, firstly they will take a full history of what has happened – especially in the case of a possible accident causing a rupture. This history can be taken while the dog is being examined, especially if they are collapsed. The dog will normally undergo blood tests (which will usually tested within the practice – if the facility is available) and also x-rays of the abdomen. Some vets may even do a quick ultrasound of the abdominal area, to ascertain if there is a problem in the splenic region.

How are spleen problems in dogs treated?

Treatment in dogs with either a splenic tumour or ruptured spleen is usually surgical removal of the whole organ. In the cases of splenic tumours, the dog will be checked as far as possible to try to rule out that the tumour has not spread to another part of the body, in lots of cases the tumour is just on the spleen and has not affected other areas. If this is found to be the case, the whole spleen is removed and part of it sent to a laboratory which will be able to tell using histology and microscopic analysis, if the tumour is benign or malignant. Just because the tumour has not spread, it is always worth having an examination of the sample – it could mean further treatment would be needed, including chemotherapy.

It is worth remembering that although not all splenic tumours are malignant, some are. One such serious type of splenic tumour is called a haemangiosarcoma. This type of tumour can be very aggressive and spread quickly to other organs in the body.

During the whole process of having treatment, the dog will be stabilised and have fluid therapy to ensure the body is supported. After the surgery dogs usually convalesce and regain strength, they are usually still kept on a drip to help the blood and circulatory system. They are also commonly given drugs such as antibiotics to stop infection occurring, painkillers to help ease any discomfort after surgery and lastly they are sometimes given drugs to prevent them from vomiting (which may happen, especially if there has been a lot of blood loss prior to surgery.)

Conclusion

Splenic problems in dogs may go either one way or the other. If a splenic problem is found to be a haemangiosarcoma and the tumour has spread to other areas of the dog’s body, often the kindest thing to do is to put the dog to sleep on the operating table. Although this may seem horrible, it really is the kindest thing. If the tumour has not spread, or indeed the spleen in itself has been ruptured and the veterinary surgeon has removed the entire organ, then the prognosis is much more favourable.

If the results from the laboratory analysis show there was a malignancy to the splenic tumour, prior to removal, then the veterinary surgeon will discuss the plans for further treatment with the owner (and as said above chemotherapy could be included).

Luckily dogs may live without their spleen and the functions it performs may be carried out by other organs and systems in the body. With supportive therapy and rest/convalescence (even for dogs that are lively), there is no reason why they cannot go on to live a full life. They may get tired quicker than a dog that has a spleen, but they quickly learn their limits - and so do their owners.

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