Spinal cord tumors in dogs aren’t an everyday occurrence, but they’re more common than you think. That’s what I learned from my vet when she shared how her dog had an inoperable tumor. She told me this information because she wanted to test my dog.
Sophie’s hind legs were slowly becoming weak and wobbly. Our veterinarian thought it might be due a tumor growing in her spine.
She started Sophie on a “prednisone trial” to see if her legs got stronger while she was taking the medicine. Prednisone is a steroid that reduces inflammation. Because tumors increase inflammation, we hoped to see an improvement in how Sophie walked.
Unfortunately, the prednisone had no effect and after a couple of weeks, we stopped using it.
Still, I remember hearing the word “tumor” and trying to prepare myself for the worst. That’s why I think it’s important for every pet owner to know the facts about spinal cord tumors. It’s better to be prepared for a potential health problem than to have it take you by surprise.
Overview of spinal cord tumors in dogs
Tumors are classified as Primary and Secondary. Primary growths start in the spine while secondary tumors start in another part of the body and spread to the spine.
Typically, they grow slowly and without any pain or symptoms until the tumor’s gotten big enough to cause damage. Tumors can be cancerous and noncancerous, but both cause harm to the spine.
There are four types of spinal tumors. The two most common are:
- Extradural tumors – These are tumors that grow outside the spinal cord and cause pressure and pain. They account for 50% of all tumors in the spine.
- Intradural-extramedullary tumors – These are tumors that grow inside the spinal cord, around the nerves. They make up 30% of spinal tumors.
The two less common tumors are: Intramedullary – Tumors that grows in the cells of the central nervous system. They account for 15% of tumors in the spine.
3. Intramedullary – Tumors that grow in the cells of the central nervous system. They account for 15% of tumors in the spine.
4. Peripheral nerve tumors – This is the rarest form that develops in the nerve roots of the spine. They account for only 5% of all spinal tumors.
Dog prone to spinal cord tumors
The typical patient is a medium to large breed dog who is middle-aged, at about 6-years-old.
Symptoms depend on the location of the tumor. Here are the overall signs owners need to know:
- Changes in the gait like limping or an unsteady walk.
- Neurologic symptoms – This can be urinary and fecal incontinence or sudden paralysis.
- Weakness in the back or front limbs.
- Pain – Dogs show signs of a sharp pain that’s limited to one area of the neck or back. Some dogs are reluctant to lift their heads while others hunch their backs.
- Loss of balance or coordination.
How veterinarians make a diagnosis
Veterinarians start the diagnosis process with a Myelogram. This is an imaging tool similar to an x-ray that injects dye into the spine to see where a tumor is located. If a tumor is found, a CT scan or MRI is ordered to give your vet further information about the size of the tumor and whether it can be reached by surgery.
It’s important to know the exact location of the tumor, the shape, how it is growing and the amount of damage it’s doing to your dog’s spine.
Bloodwork, urinalysis and a biopsy may also be ordered. The first two tests tell your vet about any infections or inflammation your dog is fighting. The biopsy takes a small piece of the tumor or surrounding tissue to better understand the makeup of the tumor.
There are treatment options available for your pet. The best course of treatment should be determined by the tumor location, type, and grade with a goal of minimizing the symptoms of the tumor as quickly as possible.PetCure Oncology
Surgery is the treatment most often prescribed for dogs with extradural and intradural-extramedullary spinal tumors. These primary growths have a better outcome than tumors that are due to cancer in another part of the body.
But, in every case the process has many risks. A vet must decide if the tumor can be fully removed without injuring the spinal cord.
Veterinarians consider these other factors to determine the right course to take:
The number of tumors.
The difficulty in reaching them with surgery.
A dog’s overall health.
Tumors due to cancer
Dogs with cancerous tumors in their spine are being offered new therapies that include chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Many dogs receive a combination of surgery and radiation therapy and it’s extending their lives.
Studies show that when these two treatments are administered, the results can extend a dog’s life an additional 11 – 23 months.
A brand-new cutting-edge therapy for dogs with spinal tumors is also adding years to a dog’s life. The treatment is called a CyberKnife surgery. It uses targeted Stereotactic Radiation (SRS) that’s directed at a cancerous growth. The advanced therapy is non-invasive and minimizes damage to healthy tissue. It’s particularly beneficial in shrinking tumors that are in hard-to-reach areas.
During the treatment a dog is placed under anesthesia while a team of veterinarians direct a robotic arm to deliver precisely targeted doses of radiation to different angles of a tumor.
CyberKnife therapy benefits dogs because less radiation treatments are needed and there are fewer side effects.
Prognosis for spinal cord tumors in dogs
As with any tumor, the outcome depends a lot on how soon treatment is started. That said, the overall prognosis for spinal cord tumors in dogs is poor. The majority of patients have a survival rate of less than 6 months.
As a pet parent, it’s important to consider your dog’s well-being and comfort at this time. Work with your veterinarian to find ways to reduce any pain your dog’s experiencing and talk about techniques for taking care of your pet at home.
Palliative care is often prescribed to help pet families find ways to maintain their dog’s quality of life. These professionals can offer advice about ways to reduce pain and keep a dog comfortable.
Others pet parents turn to canine herbal supplements that boost the immune system. Talk with your vet about a trusted brand.
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