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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



 

Discover the Full Spectrum Approach to Dog Cancer

Leave a Comment





  1. Susan Kazara Harper on June 1, 2015 at 3:51 pm

    Hi Linda,
    Congratulations on a wonderful year. Your little girl is obviously thriving, and that’s down to all the love and care you’ve given her. With a question like this, utimately the answer lies with you. It sounds as if she’s doing extremely well, and that’s a blessing. Better to have this challenge when she’s on top. If you consult with your vet you can weigh up the pros and cons of going for surgery. If you decide the benefits of surgery outweigh any potential risk, your girl is in great shape to take it on. Surgery can present a stress, but also usually spurs a healing responsein the body. I urge you to talk it over with your vet, talk it over with your girl, and together you can decide what’s best. Good luck!

  2. Linda on May 13, 2015 at 6:44 pm

    my 12 year old yorkie has a hernia on her side just diagnosed. She had anal sac carcinoma surgery.. a year ago. Had tumor removed but dirty margin. She has done great and it is a year later. All test came back great and calcium was normal. Should she have the surgery because I fear it might put her immune system in bad shape and the cancer would become active again. We love her beyond words. Can you help us?

  3. Susan Kazara Harper on December 1, 2014 at 8:47 pm

    Su, you really need to consult with your vet, or a specialst on this. It simply wouldn’t be correct for anyone to make this determination online. Get your information, listen to your gut and make the best decision you can. Your dog is not a number, and believe me, he will love and understand whatever decision you make. With our without the surgery, the time you both have together is precious and irreplacable. Talk to your boy, and you’ll know in your heart the way to go.

  4. su on November 29, 2014 at 1:11 am

    My 12 yr. old schipperke has a large mass on the right lobe of his liver. Blood work showed anemia was present, and his energy level is low and gums are pale. The
    vet said he could do surgery to remove the mass, but that there was a chance of uncontrolled bleeding, and survival times of 4 mos. to 1 yr. following if he survives the procedure. Ultrasound (done before the blood work results) indicated either a
    massive hepatocellular carcinoma or hemangiosarcoma. Does the anemia indicate that it is the latter? If so, I will forgo the surgery, and rely on palliative care.

  5. Signify on November 4, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    It is true that there are no guarantees. Depending on one’s situation, making every day – moment count can drain everyone, including the pet. We’re all temporary, but so many comments focus on making the moments count – well, if they didn’t before – then something is wrong. Going mad or making yourself sick over each moment isn’t healthy either.

  6. Signify on November 4, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    What a horrible vet. It wasn’t your fault at all.

  7. Susan Kazara Harper on July 8, 2014 at 5:43 am

    Wise words Joe. We all, truly, don’t know how long we have, and it’s always unfair that our beloved dogs have shorter lives. But you’re doing such a great job for your boy. It’s the moments that count, not counting the moments. Thanks for sharing your story. Give him a big hug from everyone on our team!

  8. Joe on July 5, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Dr D – Just read your post and have to say you are very wise man and all your advise given is right on the mark !!!! I have been through being a advocate for my father before he died of Cancer and if you just sit back and don’t do your research and homework you’ll come up short of where you could be with fighting Cancer – HE was given 2 months and I got 11 months more to spend w him – I have a 15 yr old mix breed that had a 3 lb tumor removed (along w her spleen) 13 months ago that was malignant. She now has numerous tumors in her Liver that can not be treated w surgery – I have run out of options to save here life but here is what I’ve learned along the way – Tumors are very common in dogs over the age of 10 and Ultra Sound is the only way to find tumors internally – Please have Ultra Sounds done every 3 months if your dog is getting up in age – Rimmadel is a anti-inflamatory drug that works wonders for joint pain and really helps older dogs walk and improves there range of motion immensely – Acupuncture has help my dog so much and before I was never been a big believer in Eastern Medicine at all – IT WORKS !!! My dog Bella’s days are numbered I know but making her as comfortable as humanly possible is my responsibility as here best friend and daddy – She won’t die alone and will be loved till she takes her last breath – It’s so painful but I would never trade the time we spent together to avoid the pain I feel now –

  9. Joanne on January 16, 2014 at 8:20 am

    My almost 11 yr old choc lab was dx with a brain tumor three weeks ago…. she started having seizures and we had numerous tests on her and she had an xray of her chest and blood work. All was fine, but the Emergecy Hospital we took her to was really mad bc we would do a 2 thousand dollar MRI I consulted w/ her vet of 10 years and he said not to do it. She had all the classic signs of a brain tumor, pacing for hours, getting lost in the house in corners, sleeping a lot and not doing anything she used to like bring us her na nite blankey when she was tired and wanted to take a nap, or her water and food bowls, kisses and no emotions whatsoever. We have her on Phenobarbital for the seizures and are just trying to make her comfortable. We love her so much and her brother is going to miss her terribly but the her doc said its a quality of life thing. He is so good to her/us. He only charged us $20 for the visit and then meds and blood work to make sure her levels were in the right range, which they are. He did exploratory surgery on my cat for free and only charged me $50 to not wake him up if he had cancer and he did in 2 spots. I am home with her all day and noticed she was falling a lot yesterday. I think the time is near and my heart is breaking. How long do you think she can live after being dx Dec 14 2014 FYI I noticed near Thanksgiving that she was in and around me almost all day and didn’t really think anything of it. Thanks so much. Joanne

    • Susan Kazara Harper on January 16, 2014 at 8:32 am

      Joanne, I’m so sorry to hear that you are all going through this. It sounds like you have some very knowledgable professionals to work with, and please remember that this is YOUR DOG. You make the decisions that want to, for her, based on the information you are given. It’s your decisions my dear. I know that is also a burden, but you are her greatest champion, friend and parent. There is no way to predict what is ahead today, tomorrow or next week. If treatment for the tumor is not an option, then you have lots of ways to keep her happy and comfortable. Super good, natural food is a must. If you haven’t yet, please download the Dog Cancer Diet from http://www.dogcancerdiet.com. You can also search brain cancers on this blog and find some of the wisdom previously shared. If she is having seizures you need to be careful for her protection and yours, against being injured. Remember, even if she appears to be in her own zone, or unresponsive to you at some times, that may not mean that inside she isn’t just feeling the love and the vibes of her family. Talk to her honestly. Ask her to let you know what she wants you to do. Spend quiet time with her and listen to you heart, and hers, and you will know what to do with no regrets. All the best my dear, for you both.

      • Joanne on January 16, 2014 at 10:48 am

        Thank you so much for those encouraging words Susan. We bought a crib mattress on our way home from Garden State Animal Hospital bc we knew she would be unable to snuggle on the bed and I wanted her to be comfortable. Her brother a lab mix (rotty-lab-staffy) is so loyal guy, where she is so is he. We have a $1700 bill from the GSAH that we are making payments on and with the cost and her age my vet said he wouldn’t do it. I asked him (crying) am I a bad for not doing it and he said not at all. Even with surgery and treatment which would be outrageous and the 2k for the MRI it would extend her life anywhere from 6-10 mo. I don’t want to put her through that. My grandson is turning 14 next week and he sobbed when we told him about Mocha. He spent the weekend and wants to spend another weekend. He sleeps over all the time. He’s the one that is my human velcro out of all the kids and there are 6 of them. I was reading that sometimes they don’t bark bc they have a headache. I don’t want her to be in pain and yesterday she was falling often. I am observing her and taking notes and she will (by her actions) let me know when it’s time. Thanks again Susan

        • Susan Kazara Harper on January 17, 2014 at 3:55 am

          Joanne, you’re absolutely right, you are keying in to her and you will know. Sometimes when our dogs feel our grief and dread of what may come, they struggle to hold on for us. I found it really important to gently let my dogs know that whatever they want is ok, and I love them enough to do everything I can and also to respect their choices. It’s hard, but it also deepens the relationship to an incredible degree. Stay on top of any pain with your vet, get good food into her, and follow your instincts. There are good days ahead, and happy days. Enjoy each moment. Share stories of when she was younger and crazy, have a few laughs. Your grandson sounds like a special young man. I’m glad he’s with you and your dogs. All the best.

  10. Jim Craft on January 13, 2013 at 6:30 am

    I need help. My Akita/German Shepherd mix (Micro) is 8 years old and was just diagnosed with Osteosarcoma. The vet has given me some advice, but, I’d like to get your opinion, Dr. D. Realistically, what might be the expected life extension and quality of life that she might have if we amputate her front leg and treat with chemotherapy. Cost is not a factor, so, if it makes sense to do it, then, I’ll do it. I could REALLY use some advice.

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