Pet Cancer: Understanding Hemangiosarcoma in Dogs and Cats

How Can Hemangiosarcoma Be Detected?

Recognizing hemangiosarcoma before it spreads is a tall order. Hemangiosarcoma of the skin may look and feel like a fatty tumor (which is not malignant). Fine needle aspiration, a procedure in which a thin needle is used to draw fluid or cells from a lump or mass under the skin, may just reveal blood, but to me, this situation would put me on alert for a diagnosis of cutaneous hemangiosarcoma. Early detection of this tumor is nearly impossible when it occurs in an internal organ like the heart or spleen, because its signs are very subtle. Your pet’s annual physical examination, where your veterinarian does a nose-to-tail evaluation, may allow a splenic mass to be detected during abdominal palpation, but only if it is large enough to be detected in this way. Blood tests obtained at the annual check-up may reveal an unexplained anemia, but they also may be completely normal. Diagnostic imaging, such as X-rays and ultrasound, may also lead to the discovery of hemangiosarcoma.

How Is It Treated?

The first steps in treating hemangiosarcoma involve surgery to remove the bleeding tumor and a biopsy of the excised tissue to confirm the diagnosis. Once your pet has recovered from surgery, a consultation with a veterinary oncologist (cancer specialist) will help define the role of chemotherapy in your pet’s treatment. Chemotherapy is often recommended to slow the spread of cancer throughout the body. Surgery as the sole treatment results in about a 3-month average survival; the addition of chemotherapy can double that expected survival time for many dogs with splenic hemangiosarcoma, the most common location for the tumor. Unfortunately, due to its subtle nature, hemangiosarcoma is sometimes detected so late that treatment options can be very limited.

Why Isn’t the Prognosis Better?

Current investigation into the DNA abnormalities underlying hemangiosarcoma indicates that this tumor has cells that are more resistant to cancer treatments than the average cancer cell. Another line of research suggests that the immune system of certain breeds, like the Golden Retriever, has a decreased ability to recognize and clear cancer cells from the body, leading to the breed’s increased risk for hemangiosarcoma. These facts now give veterinary researchers targets for potential therapies and pet owners hope for new treatments in the future.

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