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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Sue Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Survival Times and Dog Cancer

Updated: December 17th, 2020

I recently got a comment from a reader who was quite upset with her veterinarian because he didn’t fully explain the survival times he expected with her dog’s cancer.

Her dog underwent a splenectomy (spleen removal), presumably for treatment of a hemangiosarcoma (a malignant tumor of the blood vessel walls) of the spleen. This dog lover was incensed that the vet indicated this procedure, combined with the removal of a lipoma (fatty tumor) at the same time, would extend her dog’s life for a “long time.”

Later she was dismayed to find out, according to certain people, that this procedure would only extend her dog’s life for an additional 3-6 months.  To her, this was not a “long time.” She became “furious” at her vet, reasoned that the vet was trying to get her money, and sent in the comment.

I think there are various aspects to this scenario that deserve attention.



Hindsight Is 20/20

First, it’s important to remember that hindsight is always 20/20, but we can never be sure if we will be accurate in the future. No matter how well-educated or experienced any veterinarian is, their word should never be understood as “completely accurate.”

Veterinarians are humans, too, and sometimes we say something vague when we should be more specific. And sometimes we just have a different perspective than a layperson, and don’t realize that we’re communicating badly.

So whenever your veterinarian suggests a time frame or talks about side effects, you should ask as many questions as you need to be sure that you are really understanding what they mean. Don’t be embarrassed or hesitant.

Being your dogs primary health care advocate implies that the information is gathered before the action is executed.  Although it is not always natural, I think it is so important for everyone to please try to gather as much data as you can before embarking on what can be a complicated journey.  This was one of my main reasons for writing the Dog Cancer Survival Guide.

Take a look at the chapter on working with your veterinarian for a detailed list of questions you could be asking your veterinarian. It will help you to get organized.


For more invaluable tools and information, get a copy of the Dog Cancer Survival Guide

What’s a “Long Time” When It Comes to Survival Times?

I assume that from the vet’s perspective, the removal of the dog’s spleen would indeed extend life for “a long time.”

But this is relative, right? What does that a “long time” mean, really? It depends upon your perspective.

Some animals only live a few days. Others live decades and a few live hundreds of years. A long time is different for each of these creatures.

For example, for a creature who is expected to live an average of two years, one year is half the lifespan. One year is not “a long time” for humans unless you are a five-year-old who wants to be six. But for the two-year-lifespan creature, that’s definitely a long time.

Dogs have an average life expectancy of 12 years. So one year is 8.3% of life for dogs. (Here is a good link for average life expectancies.)

For perspective, humans on average have a life expectancy of 72.6 years. So for humans, 8.3% of their lifespan is 6 years.

Is that a long time? It depends upon your viewpoint. If I’m a father looking at my little girl, and the doctor is telling me that she will probably live another 6 years, I’m not thinking “hey, great, that’s 8.3% of her lifespan!” No. I’m thinking, “she’s only going to live to be 12??” Six years is not “a long time” in this scenario. At least, not to me.

But if I’m looking at an elderly relative who is sick, and a doctor tells me he is probably going to live another 6 years, I might feel relief. Living close to the average lifespan of a human is often considered “a long time” when we near the end of our lives.

Managing Expectations When You Hear Survival Times

Most dog lovers don’t really get just how short-lived dogs are. We just can’t even contemplate the fact of their death. It’s too painful, so we kind of forget it’s going to happen. This is REALLY common, even for those of us in the veterinary profession.

The average lifespan for my dog might be ten — but MY dog is going to live at least a decade longer. Right?

Unfortunately, no, it’s probably not. Although there are outliers, most dogs live about as long as their average lifespan would predict.

So when you hear your veterinarian tell you that your dog has “X amount of time,” it’s really useful to put that time into perspective for YOUR dog.

If your dog is 8, and the average lifespan for his weight and breed is 10 years, and your veterinarian tells you that his survival time for his cancer is about 18 months to two years, and calls that a “long time,” he’s right from a medical perspective. From a medical perspective, having a dog live the average lifespan is a good result.

But to you, the dog lover who wasn’t contemplating your dog’s eventual death, it might sound dismissive, or even like you are being “lied” to. But I promise you, no veterinarian is actually motivated to lie to you about outcomes.

You just might have different perspectives on them.

So is 3-6 Months a Long Time, or Not, Doc?

In the case of this reader, her dog had hemangiosarcoma, which is an aggressive disease.

A dog with hemangiosarcoma who gets a splenectomy, with no further care of any kind, could live 3 months or longer according to the statistics. (See the chapter on hemangiosarcoma for the many more detailed stats on this disease.)

With chemotherapy, a dog with hemangiosarcoma could have maybe 7 more months past diagnosis. So the addition of chemotherapy doubles the median survival time. But still, that might not seem like “a long time,” even though it’s doubled!

And as many readers who have battled hemangiosarcoma will attest, using all the full spectrum treatments — surgery, chemo, diet, supplements, and lifestyle modifications — could result in even longer survival times. And certainly great quality of life, which is what most of us most want for our dogs.

But is that true for EVERY dog? Of course not. Every dog is different, every cancer is different, and nothing is 100%.

The bottom line is this:  everything is relative.  Gather the data before you set sail and do what makes sense to you while using compass-ion as your compass.

Best to all,

Dr D



 

Leave a Comment





  1. Graham Smith on May 14, 2021 at 2:36 pm

    Raleigh. My 10 year old shelty was diagnosed with a rectal cancerous tumor that compromised his colon 2 months ago. I started anti-cancer protocols ( I used personally for cancer) sized down, of course, with good success. I’m taking him to a vet clinic that understands and will help me with compounding treatments. June 4th… So far he is normal & “doglike”… I’m so frustrated… Graham

  2. John J on December 18, 2020 at 5:04 am

    My Border Collie lived about 3 weeks after a tumor burst on the heart. ( the same cancer you referenced here). For me it was wrapping my mind over the fact she had cancer after she was running in the morning. God Bless and thank you for sharing this great information.

  3. Gale Mirzayanov on December 17, 2020 at 4:14 pm

    Every day is precious when you have a dog who has cancer! I was fortunate that our sweet boy let me know when it was time for him to go. (He also had hemangiosarcoma.) I took him out for a walk in the woods, and on the way back home he went to his kiddie pool and smashed down on the large tumor on his hip with all his weight. Unfortunately, the cancer had already migrated to his heart and lungs.

  4. Mark Barnhart on May 28, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    My 11 year old golden retriever was diagnosed on May 18 th after persistance of me trying to find a reason for loose stool. Vet originally diagnosed bacterial infection and prescribed anti-biotics. It cleared and he was eating okay on chicken and rice diet. He relapsed the following week and I took him in and demanded ultrasound and x rays. They informed me at that time he had a suspicious area on his spleen. I took him the following day for a bad shave and an ultrasound. They confirmed a 10cm mass on his spleen. Given his age they suggested nature run it’s course, 2-4 months with surgery and 1-3 without,so I figured I would continue to spoil him and give him every minute of my love and attention as I always did. Sad to report that through tears,10 days after diagnosis, I had to put him down today due to severe internal bleeding. My heart is broken. I was with him through life, and with him as he died. Miss him so much and i know he’s not in pain. This disease is aggressive. Please fellow owners if something seems odd, it probably is. He was fine until two weeks ago, had diarrhea, and 10 days later is dead. This disease sucks!!! Keep on your vet and get the answer sooner. I only regret I couldn’t fix my Max, but vet will tell you “ well he’s 11”. He was on the boat swimming this morning, and at 2:15 I was holding him in my arms as they delivered the euthanasia.

  5. Lori on April 9, 2018 at 4:03 am

    Just doing some research on hemangiosarcoma and I came across this post. Our dog (female, 8 years old at time of diagnosis) had her spleen removed along with a very large tumor. We have done no other treatment and she is doing great. She had surgery to remove tumor/spleen the end of June 2017 – it is now April of 2018 and she has been cancer free. She had numerous x-rays done in January of 2018 which showed no signs of tumors. We are taking it one month at a time, but are very happy that she has done so well. I realize that not every dog lasts this long with hemangiosarcoma, but you never know as my dog is proof.

    • DogCancerBlog on April 9, 2018 at 10:42 am

      Hi Lori! We are so happy to hear about your dog and how well she is doing. Thank you for posting your story!

  6. Carol Gonshak on March 28, 2018 at 11:20 am

    This is the only promising story i have heard. My 11 year old golden had spleen removed 10 days ago. Hes doing great. Results came back cancer. Level 1 whatever that means. Vet said kidneys liver lungs all look good. Im so scared to loose him. How long did your pup last after diagnosis? Im starting him on organic canfood and immunity pills. Im freakin. Cananyone give me some hope. ♡

  7. Iris on December 18, 2015 at 3:19 am

    I gave surgery to my dog due haemogiosarcoma ,she had her spleen out and also Chemotherapy 3 sessions. Unfortunately it came back in the lung in about 3months later, was on steroids for a week and collapsed ,Vet said nothing more could be done. For my beautiful dog Chemo therapy did not extend although she had a good quality after surgery for a couple of months. Was told that there was no guarantees before surgery,but because they could not see any more tumours during this time I was told maybe with chemo it might not come back but if it did there was nothing more that could be done. I still haunts me as I miss her so much and did not want to euthenise but vet said no more could be done.

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