Q: Dr. Habermann, We've noticed on our visits to your clinic with our large-breed dog that you and your staff always seem concerned about handling our dog’s abdominal area. Could you explain what your concerns are?
This client’s question made me aware something we do out of habit at the clinic is something pet owners sense or notice when we're working with their pets. The reason we treat older large-breed dogs’ abdomens like fine china is because of the common problem of tumor in these canines.
Most of these tumors are on the spleen, but a significant amount can be found on the liver. The tumors can be as small as a walnut (which in a large-breed dog is too small for us to feel on palpation of the abdomen) or as large as a softball. Some are benign; many are malignant. Though not exclusive to large dogs, the issue is much more common in them.
The real kicker is many dogs that have splenic/liver tumors will usually have no outward signs of a problem until it ruptures or is accidentally popped. Then the bleeding into the abdomen can cause signs ranging from acute collapse to a little lethargy and weakness. If the bleeding doesn't stop, the pets literally bleed out into their abdomen. This problem can occur out of the blue, but many times, when questioning pet owners, we find there was a traumatic incident (regardless of how minor it might seem) prior to realizing the pet was in distress. I've seen dogs that “hit the edge” of a vehicle when jumping into the car, a dog that stumbled and fell when getting out of the car, and pets whose well-meaning owners helped lift them into a vehicle or onto a couch by putting their arm under the dog’s belly.
It only takes something that simple to cause an otherwise non-problematic growth to become a life-threatening situation. If we get these pets into surgery quickly enough to remove the bleeding mass (usually a splenectomy or liver lobectomy is needed) we can often save the dog. Sometimes we find the masses were highly malignant and, shortly after the crisis, the dog starts having signs of metastatic malignancy somewhere else in the body. Sometimes we find the mass to be benign and the patients never look back or have any further problems related to the mass.
Over the past couple of years we've tried to make the owners of large-breed dogs (Labs, shepherds, goldens, etc.) aware of this potential so they'll know to be “gentle” in lifting their pets to help them get into or onto things. Though we sometimes may scare pet owners when discussing this topic, I think it's a valid fear, considering the frequency with which we see these issues. If our discussion of careful handling in the exam rooms helps just one patient to not have an inadvertent abdominal mass rupture, it was worth the time reviewing the subject.
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