We discovered Missy’s hemangiosarcoma by accident, a stroke of luck that has probably prolonged her life. But there were symptoms beforehand, if we’d known what to look for.
Missy had been competing with me in dog agility for several years when the hemangiosarcoma diagnosis came. She had been diagnosed 2-3 years prior with spondylitis infection and inflammation in her spine and had been treated several times. I came to recognize a flare-up of the spondylitis when she started refusing the weaves, followed by refusing the A-frame. If I wasn’t paying sufficient attention, she’d eventually refuse jumps, too.
Antibiotics resolved the spondylitis for a while, but it kept recurring, usually with many months (even up to a year) between episodes. Our vet believed it was the bacterial form, not the fungal form.
In late March 2015 I noticed Missy popping out of the weaves repeatedly (not completing the whole set of weave poles) and running past the A-frame while we were practicing. She also seemed unusually hot and panted quite a bit despite the cold weather. She has never been a speed demon on the agility field, but that day she seemed particularly lethargic, like she was just too tired to run. She even lay down under the A-frame, something she only did in the worst heat of summer when she’d had enough.
Suspecting the spondylitis had returned, I scheduled an appointment with the vet. After the x-rays, our vet came in and said, “Well, you’re right, the spondylitis looks like it’s back. But there’s a bigger problem.” He pulled up her x-ray on the screen in the exam room and pointed to an enormous circular shape in Missy’s belly. “That’s her spleen,” he said, “And it’s got to come out.”
That day on the agility field was the first time any hemangiosarcoma symptoms appeared in our presence. I didn’t know it then, but the lethargy, panting, and weakness that caused her to lay down on the agility field were likely caused by a small bleed from the tumor in her spleen. Hemangiosarcoma tumors can bleed slowly in small amounts before the tumor ruptures and the symptoms of those small bleeds match Missy’s perfectly. When the body absorbs the blood from the small rupture, the dog returns to normal behavior, just as Missy did.
Other signs of hemangiosarcoma include food refusal, a distended belly, and pale mucous membranes. Missy never missed a meal (we always joked we’d know Missy was really sick if she didn’t eat) and her belly was not obviously distended, hard as that is to believe when you see the size her spleen was when it was removed.
Today, anytime she seems weak or lethargic, or is panting a lot without exertion or high heat, our first act is to peel back her lip and check the color of her gums. We have also occasionally run for a capsule of Yunnan Baiyao, which we keep in the house and in both our cars to help with clotting of small bleeds. It doesn’t happen very often — maybe a handful of times in two years. Stops our hearts every time, though. I’m not sure there have been any small bleeds, but we don’t take chances.
As is so often the sad case with hemangiosarcoma, Missy’s symptoms didn’t appear until the tumor was very large and about to rupture fully. And they were the kind of symptoms that could easily be overlooked as something far less lethal. If it weren’t for her history of spondylitis, I probably would not have taken her to the vet. They don’t call hemangiosarcoma The Silent Killer for nothing.
It probably goes without saying, but: Don’t use this post as a substitute for sound veterinary advice. I’m not a vet and your dog needs the vet if you’re worried about hemangiosarcoma.