Cancer in German Shepherds is, sad to say, is a common concern. More than any other breed, German Shepherds are highly prone to hemangiosarcoma, which is a cancer that affects the circulatory system. Osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, is also fairly common as this cancer mostly affects large-breed dogs.
Very little is still known about hemangiosarcoma in dogs and especially why the disease affects certain dog breeds more than it does others. Due to its high incidence among certain dog breeds, it is highly likely that there is a hereditary component to the disease.
A sarcoma is a type of cancer that initially occurs in the bone or soft tissues, such as cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels, fibrous tissue, or other connective tissue. Hemangiosarcoma is a sarcoma of the cells that line the blood vessels. Because blood vessels run throughout the body, hemangiosarcoma can begin virtually anywhere in the body. But the sarcoma typically first appears in the blood vessels of the spleen or heart.
Osteosarcoma is the most common primary bone tumor in dogs and affects large breeds more than it does small breeds; and males are more likely to develop bone cancer than females. The cancer is caused by the malignant growth of immature bone cells, which can rapidly spread throughout the body. The sarcoma usually develops on a long bone of the leg and can sometimes be observed as a lump.
Hemangiosarcoma has a high fatality rate mostly because it is virtually impossible to detect during its early stages - there are no observable symptoms. The sarcoma silently grows and spreads, eroding blood vessels which eventually causes internal bleeding. When the bleeding becomes severe enough, only then does the dog usually exhibit signs that there is something wrong. Almost-white gums often indicate anemia which, in turn, could be a tell-tale sign of internal bleeding.
Other symptoms include
- Extreme thirst
- Pale mucous membranes
- Rapid or labored breathing
- Swollen abdomen
- Lack of appetite
- Signs of hypovolemic shock or severe blood/fluid loss which usually leads to organ failure.
Osteosarcoma usually starts in the bones of the front legs, but the growth can also develop in other bones. Limping and pain are the most common signs of the sarcoma. Depending on which bones are affected, your dog may exhibit varying symptoms which can include:
- Lameness or limping
- Significant pain
- Lethargy and weakness
- Swelling of the affected bones
- Broken bones near the sarcoma
- Difficulty eating or loss of appetite
- Nasal discharge
- Respiratory distress
Given the increased risks of German Shepherds to develop certain cancers, particularly hemangiosarcoma and osteosarcoma, regular veterinary check-ups should include thorough physical examinations that also look for specific symptoms. Other diagnostic tools, such as blood tests, X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, and ultrasound may also be required.
Knowing your dog’s predisposition to these cancers, you should always be on the lookout for telltale signs of cancer, such as limping and a lump in the leg for osteosarcoma, and symptoms of anemia (very pale, almost white gums in particular) for hemangiosarcoma. Have your pet examined by a vet as soon as possible if you notice anything suspicious.
Treatment and Prevention
Hemangiosarcoma treatment is usually aimed at extending the dog’s life for several months by managing/preventing internal bleeding and helping him feel as comfortable and pain-free as possible. The size and location of the primary tumor will determine if it can be surgically removed. A combination of chemotherapy and radiation is the common course of treatment. Unfortunately, hemangiosarcoma remains incurable and most dogs who develop the cancer only live a few more months after diagnosis and even with treatment.
Aside from early detection to increase the chances of treatment success, hemangiosarcoma cannot be prevented. But keeping your dog healthy and fit will also make him more capable of fighting the disease.
Osteosarcoma can also be fatal in dogs when not diagnosed and treated early enough. Depending on which bones are affected, treatment may include amputation; surgical removal of the tumor or cancerous parts of the limb; chemotherapy; radiation therapy; and medications for pain. A combination of these treatments is often the best course of action to maximize chances of success.
Bone cancer that has not yet spread beyond the affected bone is often highly treatable; however, if the cancer is located near a vital organ, surgery may not be an option. If the cancer has spread to the lungs, lymph nodes, or other organs, the dog’s survival rate falls drastically.
Any noticeable lump on any body part should prompt an immediate veterinary check-up for your pet. Remember that bone cancer is a very painful disease; even with early treatment, your dog will most likely suffer through severe and chronic pain. Talk to your vet about the best option for your beloved pal.