Dear Doctor: Tipping Point
Q. What I would really like to know is how my 10-year-old mixed breed got a huge tumor both on and in his spine that showed no symptoms until he became suddenly paralyzed three weeks ago and had to be rushed to the emergency room, where he ended up having to be put to sleep? There were no signs of a problem prior to this event!! I am still devastated.
Dear Ms. Butkus,
A. We are very sorry for your sudden loss. It is always hard when a beloved dog dies — more so, perhaps, when there is no time to prepare.
A tumor growing on or in the spine can show absolutely no symptoms until it reaches a tipping point — growing even just a fraction of a millimeter larger than before and thereby perhaps pressing on a nerve in just such a way as to cause paralysis. While we always recommend yearly or, for some older dogs, twice-yearly wellness checks to catch health problems early, before they become difficult if not impossible to treat, routine screenings simply cannot flag all illnesses in their early or even middle stages.
Sometimes, for instance, the first sign of cancer is difficulty breathing. Lymphoma and other cancers in the chest can cause fluid build-up around the lungs, making it hard for them to expand and contract as they should. Finally, one day, the dog’s breathing becomes labored to the point that the owner takes notice. By then it’s very late in the game — dogs’ (and humans’) lungs have enough excess capacity that they can mask a problem until it is very advanced.
A cancer can also, seemingly out of nowhere, cause the hemorrhaging of copious amounts of blood. In a dog with a type of cancer called hemangiosarcoma of the spleen, the tumor can grow larger than a baseball without causing any symptoms — until it suddenly ruptures. A dog can lose so much blood from internal bleeding that she is no longer able to stand, while the day before she was out running around. (Your own dog’s tumor was in the spinal canal, surrounded by bone – it wouldn’t take much sudden bleeding into that confined space to seriously compress the spinal cord.)
Brain cancer, too, can remain completely hidden — until a dog starts having seizures.
We still recommend regular wellness visits. Many more health conditions can be spotted early on clinical exams and various blood and urine tests than can’t. But as with people, terminal illnesses of dogs sometimes take us by very unhappy surprise.