Pancreatic Cancer in Dogs - The National Canine Cancer Foundation

The good news is that pancreatic cancer in dogs is quite rare. The bad news is that when it does occur, it is usually malignant and aggressive. As with all cancers in dogs’ early detection is key to improving their chance of survival. Therefore, being familiar with your furry friend’s normal behavior and eating habits could be beneficial in recognizing tell-tale symptoms of various illnesses, including cancers.

The Pancreas

As in humans, the pancreas plays a vital role in a dog’s life. Lying on the right side of the abdomen next to the stomach, it’s really two glands in one: a digestive gland and a hormone-producing gland. The enzymes produced by the pancreas assist in the digestion of food. The pancreas is also the producer of the body’s insulin and glucagon, which is essential to regulating blood sugar levels in a pup.

What is a pancreatic tumor?

A pancreatic tumor can result when there is an abnormal production and replication of cells within the pancreas. The pancreas comprises two types of cells – exocrine and endocrine cells – and tumors may originate from either of these two types of cells.

Types of Pancreatic Cancer in Dogs

There are four types of pancreatic cancer in dogs (insulinomas, adenocarcinomas, gastrinomas, and glucagonomas), but the first two are the most common. These two produce a host of different symptoms.

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Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer in Dogs

Insulinoma:

Dogs who have an insulinoma tumor will produce an excessive amount of insulin, reducing blood sugar levels. This can result in symptoms such as:

  • Lack of energy and less interest in activities they usually enjoy
  • Fainting when hungry
  • Reduced coordination, wobbling when walking
  • Confusion
  • Muscle twitching
  • Seizures

Adenocarcinoma:

Unfortunately, this produces “vague” symptoms, which means cancer may not be diagnosed until the disease has progressed. Also, the symptoms can mimic those of pancreatitis, which is an inflammation of the pancreas.

Symptoms of adenocarcinomas can include:

  • A reduced appetite for food and water
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Lack of energy
  • Abdominal pain, sensitivity, or distention
  • Weight loss
  • Jaundice

If not detected early, cancer may have spread, as is common with this form of cancer, and your dog may have difficulty breathing or may appear lame.

Some of the symptoms listed above are also signs of other illnesses. The sooner you can receive a diagnosis and start treatment, the better the chances of recovery.

Diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer

Diagnosing pancreatic tumors can be challenging for vets. Not only is pancreatic cancer in dogs relatively rare, but the symptoms may come and go.

Pancreatic tumors can be diagnosed using blood tests and possibly

imaging to identify the presence of a tumor and its size. The pancreas is so tiny that imaging has its limitations. Sometimes the Vet may opt to diagnose through surgery and examination of the pancreas. However, this may not be an optimal solution and treatment may be started without visualization of the tumor.

Treatment for Pancreatic Cancer in Dogs

With insulinomas and adenocarcinomas, surgery is generally the most effective to diagnose, stage, and treat cancer.

In insulinomas, surgery to remove the affected portion of the pancreas, followed by chemotherapy, is typically considered the best treatment option. During surgery, other abdominal structures can be assessed for the spread of cancer. Additionally, an effort may be made to stabilize the blood glucose through diet and drugs.

If surgery is not an option, your Vet may try to manage your dog’s low blood sugar symptoms. This may be done through a modified diet and feeding plan combined with medications to suppress insulin secretion.

Although surgery can be effective in adenocarcinomas, there is a great risk of life-threatening complications. Chemotherapy is generally not effective in the treatment of adenocarcinomas in dogs.

Cause of Pancreatic Cancer in Dogs

As with most cancers, it’s hard to pinpoint an exact cause. The statistics do demonstrate that certain breeds are more likely to develop this type of cancer.

Larger breed dogs such as Boxers, German Shepherds, Irish Setters, and Golden Retrievers have a greater tendency to develop pancreatic cancer. Additionally, a dog’s age can be a factor, with middle-aged and older dogs more prone to pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic Cancer in Dogs – The Prognosis 

As noted, pancreatic tumors are often malignant, meaning that there is a high probability that cancer has spread before it’s been detected. Unfortunately, this can make for a poor prognosis for dogs with pancreatic cancer. If the type of tumor has been identified and your Vet completed staging tests, they may be able to give you a prognosis. Often the time frame is six months to a year. Sometimes, depending on severity and treatment plan it could be as long as two years. Generally, survival rates are only described as fair.  In many cases, cancer moves to the lymph nodes, liver, and small intestine after starting in the pancreas. If this happens, it can dramatically reduce life expectancy.

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