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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. Mayra on August 23, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    Dear Dr. Dressler,

    My 12 1/2 year old Golden was diagnosed with lymphoma in Dec 2011. She received chemo (Madison-Wisconsin) for 6 months, and she is still in remission and going strong. We are very happy with the decision. My other dog, 13 1/2 year old golden mix just had her spleen removed two days ago, She had four ultrasounds in the past three months because we were monitoring a small mass in her liver. When the surgeon went in to remove the liver mass she found the spleen mass! She also found a few other very tiny spots around the liver, which she biopsied. We are waiting results from pathology. I am praying and hoping for the best, but scared that this may be hemangiosarcoma. Since the spleen never ruptured (the spleen mass was about 3 centimeters) and they have now revomed the spleen and the liver mass, will chemo extend her life? I have been reading your book and it’s given me hope, but the reality of cancer is still so hard to bear.

  2. Erin O'Hara on April 29, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    Dear Dr. Dressler,

    Thank you for these resources. My 12 year old hound, Frank, was diagnosed with subcutaneous hemangiosarcoma last fall. He has undergone multiple surgeries to remove the tumor with wide margins. We also traveled to North Carolina State to have a thorough follow up done. He was scanned, pricked, and prodded. Several large nodules were found on the spleen, but none of the aspirated sites came back positive for cancer. Frank just had an ultrasound that showed a large mass on his spleen. My vet does not want to remove the spleen. He worries that removal may accelerate the cancer and lead to a declined quality of life. He knows that Frank’s happiness is very important to me. Although I know that statistically the mass on the spleen is hemangiosarcoma, I keep thinking it may be something else. Frank’s energy is down, but he is still chasing rabbits for hours each day.

    I have researched this cancer extensively. I really wanted to pursue immunotherapy, specifically use of the CA IL-12 in combination with a TKI currently used in humans for angiosarcoma. However, I have found these treatments are not available. Although there are a variety of Interleukins available on the internet, including human IL-12, CA IL-12 is not even available for purchase.

    I don’t know what to do. I am constantly torn concerning Frank’s spleen removal. I would greatly appreciate any thoughts you may have.

    • Dr. Demian Dressler on May 9, 2012 at 4:22 pm

      Dear Erin
      I would have no problem doing a splenectomy, personally. You can get a biopsy done too for definitive diagnosis.
      I hope this helps.
      Dr D

  3. Jeannette Botza on February 22, 2012 at 9:24 am

    Lost my most precious girl to Hemangioscarma, My life was shattered as 4 four
    months xrays showed nothing. Then on Christmas Eve. she beame ill and xrays
    showed it had spread to her speen and liver. we had done all the chemo
    sessions, acupuncture, and some at home chemo, plus spent
    thousands of dollars I did not do the metronomic chemo as when I did it made
    her ill. My vet said if I didn’t give it to her it would all come back and she
    would bleedout, and I would lose her and it would be my fault. I did lose her, and
    i continue to live with these horrible words from the Oncologist.

    • Dr. Demian Dressler on February 28, 2012 at 4:23 pm

      Dear Jeannette,
      you should realize that dog cancer, and the complications from it, are not your fault at all. Remember, chemo does not cure metastatic hemangiosarcoma, so the statement that if you do not do chemo it will be your fault that your baby passes is simply false. You should allow yourself the forgiveness that comes with this understanding and let yourself off the hook. You did everything possible.
      Dr D

  4. Vicky on November 3, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    I have to empathize with Karen’s experience and I appreciate and have implemented Dr. Dressler’s advice to research and be your pet’s own best advocate.
    Our sweet 11 1/2 year old lab was dx’d with hypodermal hemangiosarcoma 2 months ago. She has a mass of several tumors covering her upper hind leg that the vet said surgery was not an option due to the irregular margins. Two biopsies, a host of other tests and $1500 later we were told she had 2 months to live but if we started chemo she potentially could make it another 6 to 12 months. At first we signed right on thinking we were on the verge of losing her forever. It wasn’t until I started doing more research that we put the brakes on treatment. Though there is a lot of information on hemangiosarcomas and prognosis after surgery and chemo there seems to be very little information available regarding hypodermal hemangiosarcomas and the prognosis when no traditional treatment is given. I could not find anything that told me that hypodermal hemangiosarcoma had the same life expectancy as visceral tumors of the spleen and heart which seems to be the prognosis the vet was going off of. I’m still looking. In the meantime, her “expiration date” has passed and she is still doing fine for an older dog with arthritic hips. We’re watching her closely for signs of pain or illness. She’s on an anti-inflammatory for her arthritis and is eating well and takes her daily walks. I intuitively feel we are doing the right thing by her by not subjecting her to chemotherapy. I hope she stays around for a good long while, we love her so.

  5. Nancy on October 6, 2010 at 5:28 am

    Debbie – thank you for your condolences. I miss Nikki every second of every day.
    Sophia – I prayed every day that Nikki would go peacefully in her sleep, but that didn’t happen. As the tumors spread like wildfire all over her precious body, my prayers because frantic cries for her suffering to end the natural way, but again, that didn’t happen. But then the tought of her dying alone at home while I was at work seemed a terrible thing to put her through since she was such a huge part of me. I will never recover from losing her but I have a fraction of comfort knowing she went in my arms and the last words she heard were mine, telling her how much I love her.

  6. Sophia on September 15, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    My dog, Roscoe, was diagnosed with spleen cancer 7 weeks ago; the vet said he had ~2 weeks left. We insisted not to put him to sleep as he was still active (not as active as before), but still enjoyed life with everyone. This evening he started to have problem getting up; he was still going to park this morning and fetching ball though his energy has gone down a bit. The whole afternoon he was panting a bit. How much longer would my friend have left? I hope that he would not have to go through much pain. I hope that he can go in peace, but I don;t believe in euthanization.

  7. Debbie on September 14, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    Hi Nancy,
    I am so sorry to hear that you lost Nikki after such a short amount of time. I can only imagine your sorrow and lonliness. My Buddy has had cancer for a few months now – melanoma of his foot. We had part of his toe amputated and his lungs and liver are clear as of now. I lost my mom a year-and-a-half ago to lung cancer. Scary disease… It can hit anywhere, anytime. I will keep you and Nikki in my prayers.

  8. Nancy on September 10, 2010 at 10:32 am

    I lost Nikki on 9/4. She lasted two very short months. My heart is broken and my world is shattered. I wish all of you the very best with your loved pets.

  9. Nancy on August 20, 2010 at 11:57 am

    Kathryn, my Nikki (the Shar Pei) is also on steroids and the cancer is spreading like wildfire. BUT….she doesn’t seem to be in any discomfort, she still wags her tail, and she still eats, drinks and poops……all the normal stuff. Yes, she is dieing. I can’t change that. And, yes, it will probably mean I will have to make a decision soon but until I feel she is suffering, I am loving her like every day is her last. I’ve convinced myself that she wants to be with me as much as I want to be with her. I love this crazy dog more than I would ever have imagined and want to capture as many days as possible, as long as it is not a painful experience for her. Love your boxer and show him all the attention you can. When he is in pain, you’ll know. And that’s when you’ll have to make the decision but for now, make some more memories with him. Even if it’s just a week…..that’s a week you’ll remember forever. Believe me, I am so glad I got pictures and recordings of her while she was still energetic enough to perform for me.

  10. Kathryn on August 17, 2010 at 5:05 am

    I have a 4yr old Boxer. 9 months ago we were told he had a small growth on his belly. Vet told us to let her know if it grew but otherwise not to be concerned. 2 weeks ago we noticed swelling from his arm pit to the growth. We took him in, saw a different vet at the same clinic. She put him on antibiotics thinking it was an infection because he did have fever at the time and we had been battling ticks for a couple weeks. After a week of meds, yesterday I took him because the swelling had not subsided. Doc decided to do a biopsy and just by looking at it, she told us it is cancer. It is now from his armpit all th way to his tail. His one leg is swollen, cancer is cutting off the circulation. Yesterday morning i had decided that we would bring him home to say our goodbyes and then put him down today. Yesterday when i went to get him, i talked to the vet, trying to make sure im making the right decision. He is verry happy, very active despite it all. She said we could try steriods to see if it would help and if it did, then we could proceed to test the samples to see what type of cancer it is. Because of our financial situation, seems the best route for now. I dont know if im making a mistake trying to keep him. He isnt suffering and i promised everyone that first sign of suffering i see, ill let him go. But i feel the need to try. I am just heart broken and the tears wont stop coming. If i can have any more time with him, i want it. I know its a long shot, especially in boxers. If anyone knows of any other way, please do share.

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