Your dog just got diagnosed with leukemia. You’ve barely had a chance to take in this information. And now your vet says you need to make a decision about what to do next. And you need to do it quickly because the most common type of leukemia in dogs is fast moving.
I know it’s hard but it’s important not to panic. There are ways for you to support your dog and manage his symptoms to improve his quality of life.
So today I’m going to talk about everything you need to know about leukemia. And the different options available to you.
What Is Leukemia?
Your dog has three types of blood cells … red blood cells (RBCs), white blood cells (WBCs) and platelets. RBCs help carry oxygen throughout your dog’s body and platelets play a major role in blood clotting. WBCs are responsible for fighting off infections.
Leukemia is a blood cancer that can affect any of these cells. And the type of leukemia your dog has depends on which cells are affected. The two most common types of leukemia in dogs are:
Myeloid leukemia (also called myelogenous leukemia) – it affects RBCs, WBCs, and platelets.
Lymphocytic leukemia (also called lymphoid or lymphoblastic leukemia) – this type of leukemia starts in a very specific type of WBC called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are produced in your dog’s bone marrow, along with RBCs and platelets. They’re also one of the body’s major immune cells.
Today I’ll focus on lymphocytic leukemia as this is the most common form of leukemia in dogs. It can be classified as acute or chronic.
Symptoms Of Lymphocytic Leukemia
Leukemia is classified by the type of blood cell involved (myeloid or lymphoid), as well as how mature the cell is when it’s affected. This is important because the maturity of the cell affects symptoms … and how quickly the cancer progresses.
Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia
If your dog’s leukemia is acute, it involves immature blood cells (called blasts). Acute lymphocytic leukemia usually affects middle aged to older dogs. It’s also more common in dogs than chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).
Acute leukemia causes a rapid production of abnormal cells. That means it’s fast growing and symptoms can appear very suddenly.
Signs Of Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia
- Pale gums or tongue
- Lack of appetite
- Weight loss
- Increased thirst or urination
- Irregular breathing and heart rate
- Bruising or bleeding easily
- Changes in behavior
Your dog may also be at risk of:
- Anemia – low RBC counts
- Thrombocytopenia – low platelet counts
- Neutropenia – low neutrophils (another type of WBC)
- Cytopenia – reduction of mature blood cells
This is because the bone marrow is so focused on rapidly producing abnormal blasts that it slows the production of other blood cells.
Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
Chronic leukemia is usually seen in dogs over the age of 10. It affects mature blood cells. These cells reproduce more slowly and symptoms are often mild. In fact, most CLL cases get diagnosed during routine blood work without any other symptoms showing.
Signs Of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
- Loss of appetite
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Enlarged spleen
- Bruises easily
- Symptoms worsen with time
It’s important to note that CLL symptoms resemble the signs of other diseases. Seeing these symptoms does not necessarily mean your dog has CLL. You’ll want to have your vet make a proper diagnosis.
Is It Really Leukemia?
The most obvious sign of leukemia is lymphocytosis … when your dog produces more lymphocytes than normal. In a healthy dog, there are approximately 3,500 lymphocytes per microliter of blood. In leukemic dogs, lymphocytes can be as high as 100,000 per microliter.
Generally, in cases where the lymphocyte count is 20,000 or higher, diagnosis is easy. But when there’s a less extreme increase in lymphocytes, it gets harder to pinpoint the reason.
Less obvious increases in lymphocytes could be a sign of many different health problems. It could be leukemia that’s in the early stages … when production has not hit the highest level. Or it could be because the leukemia is in the later stages and the bone marrow is so damaged it can no longer produce as many cells.
But it could also be:
A blood cancer that can also affect lymphocyte cells. The difference is that the cells are in the lymph nodes and other tissues. In leukemia, the affected cells are mostly in the bone marrow and blood. With lymphoma, lymphocyte counts usually don’t increase above 20,000 per microliter.
Certain blood parasites, like Ehrlichiosis, can increase lymphocyte levels to above 6,000 per microliter. Your vet may do special blood tests to determine whether your dog has a parasite or CLL.
Acute stress can increase the number of lymphocytes in your dog’s blood work. In fact, they can increase to as much as 15,000 lymphocytes per microliter. But in this case, the increase will only be temporary.
Dogs with Addison’s disease underproduce cortisol, a stress hormone. Common signs include decreased RBC counts and increased lymphocytes (up to 10,000 per microliter).
Like blood parasites, severe fungal infections can increase lymphocyte counts. Some infections can bring your dog’s blood lymphocytes count above 6,000 per microliter.
Because there could be many causes for your dog’s lymphocytosis, you’ll want to get a proper diagnosis. And that’s what I want to talk about next.
How To Dignose Leukemia
To confirm a leukemia diagnosis and rule out other causes your vet will want to do blood tests. They’ll provide important information about what’s happening in your dog’s body.
Complete Blood Count (CBC)
CBCs look at the different types of cells in your dog’s blood.
White Cell Differential
This test specifically looks at the number and types of WBCs in your dog’s blood. Abnormalities can help confirm a diagnosis.
These are especially useful when diagnosing leukemia. Cytologies look at abnormalities in the blood. They’ll tell your vet the number and shape of cells. Abnormalities in the lymphocytes can help confirm leukemia.
This test looks at different cell markers to figure out what kind of cells they are. This test can also confirm cells are leukemic and determine the stage of cancer. I’ll talk about stages shortly.
This test helps identify cancerous cells in the blood. It can also help determine the types of cells affected so the vet knows what type of leukemia your dog has.
Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Test
With leukemia, all the abnormal cells derive from a single cell. So if all the cells look alike (called cell clonality), it can confirm that your dog has leukemia. The PCR test lets labs rapidly multiply samples to examine the cell clonality.
Many of these techniques also test bone marrow that’s collected through aspiration or biopsy. These tests can be invasive and cause infection or long-lasting discomfort. If you can, you want to avoid these tests. For CLL, blood tests are often enough to get an accurate diagnosis.
A bone marrow biopsy is necessary to confirm an ALL diagnosis. The bone marrow has to contain 20-25% blasts. Normally there’s only 5% or less.
But an official diagnosis is not needed to help manage cancer naturally. And that means you can save your dog from this added stress on his body. I’ll talk more about natural management later on.
Staging Of Leukemia In Dogs
Staging classifies cancer-based on the extent of the diagnosis. Generally, this will include the size of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread. This information is then used for treatment, prognosis and to track progression.
But ALL and CLL don’t use a standard staging system because there’s no mass to analyze. And because leukemia is a blood cancer, it can spread easily (often before it’s diagnosed).
Instead, the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies ALL based on the type of lymphocytes involved. CLL uses either the Rai system (US) or Binet System (Europe) as follows.
Stage 0 – Low Risk
- Lymphocytosis (5,000+ lymphocytes per microliter of blood)
- Lymph nodes, spleen and liver are not enlarged
- RBCs and platelets are near normal
Stage I – Intermediate Risk
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- No enlargement of spleen or liver
- RBCs and platelets are near normal
Stage II – Intermediate Risk
- Enlarged spleen
- Possible enlargement of lymph nodes and liver
- RBCs and platelets are near normal
Stage III – High Risk
- Possible enlargement of lymph nodes, liver or spleen
- Platelets are near normal
- RBCs are low (anemia)
Stage IV – High Risk
- Enlarged lymph nodes, spleen and liver
- Platelets are low (thrombocytopenia)
- RBCs might be low
Stage A – Low Risk
- RBC and platelets are normal
- Enlarged lymphatic tissues in less than 3 areas
Stage B – Intermediate Risk
- RBC and platelets are normal
- Enlarged lymphatic tissues in 3 or more areas
Stage C – High Risk
- RBC and platelets are low
- Enlarged lymphatic tissues in any number of areas
Now that you have a better understanding of what leukemia is and how it affects your dog … here are natural options for managing it. Let’s start with conventional treatments and why they may not be the best choice for your dog.
Conventional Treatment Of Leukemia In Dogs
Treatment for leukemia is about management. It’s rarely cured. The main goals are to …
- Restore WBC production
- Reduce symptoms
- Relieve discomfort
The degree of intervention will depend on whether the leukemia is acute or chronic. CLL requires a less aggressive approach because of its slow growth. If your vet diagnoses your dog with CLL, you’ll want to watch him closely. Your vet will want to take blood work regularly to track cancer’s progression. In later stages, conventional vets may prescribe chemotherapy drugs.
ALL is rapidly moving so it requires more aggressive treatment. Conventional vets may recommend any number of treatment options.
Conventional Treatment Options For Leukemia
- Intravenous (IV) fluids
- Blood transfusions if your dog is anemic or has chronic bleeding
- Feeding tubes
- Chemotherapy drugs
Hospitalization is often necessary with ALL and treatments can take a major toll on your dog.
Bone Marrow Transplants
Bone marrow transplants can help treat lymphosarcoma and lymphocytic leukemia in dogs. Bone marrow transplants are actually stem cell transplants. The procedure includes 4 major steps:
- Chemotherapy – Your dog will receive chemotherapy to put the cancer into remission. Your dog will also receive antibiotics to make sure there are no infections or microbes in his system.
- Filtration – Your dog’s blood gets filtered to isolate healthy stem cells, for use later on. A special machine collects your dog’s blood, filters it and then pumps it back into your dog. Your dog will need to be under anesthesia.
- Radiation – Radiation kills any dormant cells still in your dog. Because the cancer is in your dog’s blood and could be anywhere in his body, he’ll need total body irradiation (TBI). He’ll also have to be under anesthesia.
- Transfusion – Once your dog has undergone radiation, a transfusion returns his healthy stem cells.
Why You May Want To Avoid Conventional Treatment Options
One of the first decisions you’ll have to make after a cancer diagnosis is whether you want to move forward with conventional treatment. The two most commonly recommended treatments are chemotherapy and radiation.
What’s important to remember is that these treatments won’t cure leukemia. They’ll just slow the progression and reduce symptoms of cancer. And those are definitely positives. But it also doesn’t necessarily mean your dog will feel better. You may just be trading in cancer symptoms for the side effects of treatments.
Let’s take a better look at what these treatments are and how they can affect your dog.
Radiation is only used in specific situations for dogs with leukemia …
- As part of a stem cell (bone marrow) transplant
- To ease bone pain from damage caused by leukemia cells
- To reduce discomfort associated with enlarged organs
- If ALL cells have spread to the brain, spine or other organs
Radiation uses radioactive materials to burn the skin. It’s used to lessen your dog’s pain and has proven effective for this purpose. But it also has some nasty side effects, which vary depending on dose, frequency and treatment location.
Side Effects of Radiation
- Skin redness and irritation
- Hair loss
- Sores in the mouth
- Eye problems
- Bone damage
- Nerve injuries
- Spinal cord injury
- Brain infarction
- Kidney problems
- Chronic skin problems
- Lung inflammation
Chemotherapy is much more common in treating leukemia. It uses chemicals to kill cancer cells. But it also damages healthy cells. This weakens your dog’s immune system even further. And if your dog’s body is weak, he’s more susceptible to other diseases and illnesses. That’s why an increased risk of infection is a side effect of this treatment.
Chemotherapy can also have other side effects that vary depending on the drug used.
Possible Side Effects Of Chemotherapy
- Hair loss
- Mouth sores
- Loss of appetite
- Increased risk of infection
- Shortness of breath
- Heart problems
- Bone marrow suppression (low blood cell counts)
- Problems with coordination and balance
- Nerve damage
- Tumour lysis syndrome
Not to mention radiation and chemo are both carcinogenic. That means they could cause other forms of cancer.
Your vet or oncologist may tell you that dogs tolerate chemotherapy better than humans do. But Judy Jasek DVM, a holistic vet who specializes in cancer patients, has a different experience with chemotherapy …
“There may be a temporary reduction in tumor size. But then I see most pets get so sick that, in the end, their bodies become too run down to survive. There will always be some cancer cells that escape the chemo treatments. They come back with a vengeance … and the pet succumbs to the disease.”
Dr Ian Billinghurst has similar experiences …
“If these treatments don’t kill the patient immediately, they usually lead to a more damaging and aggressive form of cancer.”
You have to ask yourself … Are these side effects better than the symptoms of your dog’s leukemia? Will they let your dog enjoy a better quality of life?
Now let’s look at some of the many natural options you can use to manage your dog’s leukemia and symptoms.
Natural Management Of Leukemia
The main focus with any cancer is to strengthen your dog’s overall health and immune system.
“Instead of weakening the body … the far more rational (and scientific) approach is to strengthen the body. To give it the nutritional tools that allow it to fight the cancer. At the same time I use nutritional means that weaken and take the power away from the cancer... In most instances, this not only allows longer survival times … but does so with a vastly improved quality of life.”
– Dr Ian Billinghurst BV Sc Hons BSc Agr Dip Ed
Natural approaches may help buy you more time with your dog and improve his quality of life. Even if you decide to use conventional treatments … these 7 natural options that follow can help support your dog’s health and ability to resist disease. They may also reduce some of the side effects to help your dog feel more comfortable for longer.
1. Stop Vaccinating
Vaccines can cause a lot of long-term health problems in dogs. And they can promote the growth and development of cancer in many ways. Whenever possible, you should avoid giving them to your dog … even if he’s healthy.
But if you do vaccinate your pet, a cancer diagnosis is a sure sign it’s time to stop. Vaccines should never be given to unhealthy dogs … it even says so on the labels. Make sure your vet knows you don’t consent to vaccinating your dog.
2. Avoid Pharmaceutical Drugs
Pharmaceutical drugs like antibiotics, antihistamines, pest preventatives and heartworm medications are suppressive. They quell symptoms in the short term but that can just drive the problem deeper into the body. Eventually, they’ll reappear … often in a worse form (including cancer).
3. Toss The Kibble
To starve cancer cells you need to cut sugar from your dog’s diet. This includes starchy carbohydrates like those found in kibble, which convert to sugar in your dog’s body.
According to Dr Ian Billinghurst these sugars fuel cancer by increasing …
- Insulin, which helps cells (including cancer cells) grow and reproduce.
- Inflammation, which can lead to cancer and increase progression.
Kibble can also contain carcinogenic substances like aflatoxins, dyes, heterocyclic amines and acrylamides.
Instead feed fresh whole foods, preferably organic so you avoid toxins. If you can, use grass-fed meats and include organs. Organs are nature’s multivitamins and are full of important nutrients your dog needs. When possible, work with a holistic vet on a diet designed specifically for your leukemic dog.
4. Remove Environmental Toxins
It’s impossible to remove every toxin from your dog’s world. But there are ways you can reduce the toxic load on your dog.
- Use filtered or spring water. Tap and well water can contain all sorts of chemicals. Sometimes townships add chemicals for their perceived health benefits, like fluoride. Others are accidental contaminants such as lead, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals.
- Avoid chemical cleaning products. There are a lot of natural alternatives to keep your house clean and they’re much safer for your dog.
- Try to find an all natural shampoo or make your own. Many dog shampoos contain dangerous ingredients. Pure castille liquid soap is one good choice.
- Don’t use lawn chemicals and herbicides. When out in the world, try to avoid grass that is likely treated.
5. Avoid Dairy
Dairy products contain proteins that are proinflammatory. And inflammation plays a role in the progression of cancer.
6. Add Supplements
There are many different supplements you can add to your dog’s diet to help manage his cancer. Your holistic vet or herbalist can help you figure out just how much your dog needs for his situation.
Antioxidants protect your dog’s cells from damage done by free radicals. This damage can lead to cancer and many other chronic diseases. Adding antioxidants to your dog’s diet through fruits, vegetables and supplements can help reduce damage.
Probiotics are full of beneficial bacteria that colonize in the gut to maintain balance and provide health benefits to your dog. And with nearly 90% of your dog’s immune system is in his gut, a healthy gut is critical to a healthy dog. But it isn’t just probiotics your dog needs. He also needs prebiotics to feed the probiotics and boost their effectiveness. You can find convenient supplements with both probiotics and prebiotics.
CBD oil is a non-psychoactive compound derived from cannabis plants. Studies show that CBD oil can kill cancer cells and slow cancer growth. It can also help increase appetites in dogs who aren’t eating.
Medicinal mushrooms are full of beneficial compounds that help boost your dog’s immune system so he can resist cancer. One of the most important is beta-glucans. Beta-glucans are soluble fibers found in the cell walls of mushrooms. They have immuno-modulating and anti-tumor properties.
Studies show that some mushrooms are especially effective for leukemia …
- Turkey tail
When buying mushroom supplements, look for products made from the whole mushroom. Products that use mycelium grown on grains won’t be as effective.
Turmeric And Green Tea
Turmeric contains an active ingredient called curcumin that can target cancer cells. And unlike chemotherapy, it does it without damaging healthy cells. This helps protect your dog’s immune system.
Similarly, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) in green tea also has cancer-fighting properties.
Studies show that together, curcumin and EGCG can help manage leukemia. They do this by increasing cell death of cancerous cells in CLL patients.
Modern diets are rich in pro-inflammatory fats. Supplementing omega-3 into your dog’s diet can help balance these fats and reduce inflammation. Omega-3 also helps boost your dog’s immune system so your dog’s body can resist cancer.
Chinese herbal remedies like Yunnan Bai Yao can be a great tool for supporting and strengthening your dog’s immune system.
And studies now show there are herbs that may have antileukemic effects. This includes ginseng root, hibiscus, garlic and Moringa oleifera.
Consult a professional Western or Chinese herbalist for the best solutions and dosing for your dog’s individual needs.
7. Fruits And Vegetables
Like the herbs listed above, some fruits have antileukemic and anticancer effects. This includes carrots and pomegranates.
Note: Pomegranates may cause stomach upset in some dogs, so start slowly..
But fruits and vegetables are also full of flavonoids. And flavonoids that can inhibit processes in your dog’s body that help cancer thrive. One human study showed that quercetin and apigenin were especially effective for leukemia. Quercetin is in berries, while chamomile, celery and parsley are rich in apigenin.
Some fruits and veggies like cranberries, eggplant and red cabbage have anthocyanidins. This flavonoid has also shown to increase cancer cell death in leukemic patients.
Finally, studies show that the flavonoid, silymarin, could also be useful in the fight against leukemia. In humans, it can increase cancer cell death. Silymarin is in milk thistle and turmeric root.
How To Prevent Leukemia
There’s not much information on the causes of leukemia in dogs. But there are studies on factors that may increase the risk of leukemia in people and other animals. These factors include exposure to:
- Toxic Chemicals
- Viral infections
It’s also believed that genetics play a role in the development of leukemia.
While you can’t control your dog’s genes, you can influence how they’re expressed. That’s the science of epigenetics. Diet and environmental factors can reduce your dog’s exposure to chemicals, radiation and infection. You can also use many of the above management techniques to help prevent and manage cancer and other chronic diseases. Dr Demian Dressler also has some great advice to help prevent cancer in dogs.
Do Your Research
Cancer sucks. It’s full of difficult choices and unpredictable outcomes. And there can be a lot of pressure from friends, family, vets and even yourself.
But don’t get stuck on what you can’t control and what ifs. Instead focus on what you’re doing right now … arming yourself with information. Look for ways to help your dog live his best life while he can. That’s the ultimate goal.
No matter which route you choose, the decision is yours and yours alone. So make sure your decision is fueled by knowledge. That way you can feel confident that you made the right choice for you and your dog.
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