If your dog was diagnosed with cancer of the liver, you may be wondering what's the life expectancy in dogs with liver cancer. When it comes to liver cancer in dogs, life expectancy may vary based on several factors. The age and overall health status of the dog can be factors. The type of liver cancer can also play a role. In dogs, liver cancer may primarily originate from the liver, or it could be that the cancer has reached the liver, but it primarily stems from another area of the body, a process known as metastasis. Following is some information on life expectancy in dogs with liver cancer.
Liver Cancer in Dogs
Liver cancer, as the name implies, is cancer that affects the dog's liver. It is mostly found in older dogs over the age of ten. There are various forms of liver cancer that can affect dogs.
Liver cancer can affect just one or multiple lobes of the dogs liver. It can occur primarily in the liver (primary tumor) or may be secondary from another form of cancer occurring somewhere else in the dog's body and spreading to the liver (metastatic tumors). Metastatic tumors that can spread to the dog's liver include pancreatic tumors, intestinal tumor and renal cell carcinoma.
Symptoms of dogs with liver cancer include lethargy, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, increased drinking, increased urination and weight loss. These signs may mimic several other disorders. More specific signs that point to a liver problem include jaundice, the yellowing of the dog's mucous membranes and skin and ascites, swelling of the abdomen due to the buildup of fluids.
Because toxins, which otherwise would have been excreted by the liver, are released into the dog's bloodstream and reach the brain, sometimes affected dogs may also develop seizures, a condition known as hepatic encephalopathy.
Liver cancer is suspected when the dog's serum chemistry profile shows increased levels of liver enzymes including ALT, aspartate aminotransferase (AST), and ALP, which point to a problem with the liver. The vet may also feel a mass by palpating the dog's abdomen. Definite diagnosis is usually made by several diagnostic tools. An abdominal x-ray and an ultrasound may show a mass in the liver but definite diagnosis is mostly made by liver biopsy, a procedure where a tissue sample from the liver is obtained by use of a needle. The tissue sample is then visualized under a microscope.
""Based on abdominal x-rays or abdominal ultrasound, your pet’s veterinarian may make a presumptive diagnosis of a liver tumor. Although these initial tests may suggest that the tumor is very large and inoperable, usually these can be successfully removed. "~American College of Veterinary Surgeons
Options for Dog Owners
When a dog is diagnosed with liver cancer, this doesn't mean an immediate death sentence. There are several options for dog owners to prolong life while keeping quality in mind. If the liver tumor is a benign one such as a hepatoma it obviously has a much better prognosis than a carcinoma.
A general rule of thumb, it can be insightful to have chest x-rays done anytime a dog is diagnosed with cancer. The x-rays can show whether there is spread to the lungs which can change the treatment protocols. Liver cancer that has spread to the lungs generally has a poor prognosis.
In dogs, the most common type of liver tumor is hepatocellular carcinoma that affects a single liver lobe. A study found that dogs operated to remove the affected liver lobe had pretty decent survival times compared to dogs who were managed conservatively. For a best outcome, it's best if this surgery is carried out by a board-certified veterinary surgeon.
The good news is that surgical removal of the tumor can be quite successful when the tumor consists of a single, large tumor (massive hepatocellular carcinoma). It is estimated that up to 75 percent of the dog's liver can removed without any major loss of function.
In the case though where multiple tumors affect multiple lobes (nodular and diffuse forms of hepatocellular carcinoma), things can get more critical, especially if the cancer has spread to other organs. In this case, the prognosis can be rather poor, but dog owners can provide palliative care, under the form of steroids which may shrink the tumors, and diminish the swelling, and a diet made specifically for dogs with liver disease so that the liver is not overloaded.
Feeding smaller, yet more frequent meals is also helpful considering that as the tumor grows, it ends up pressing against the stomach, with the end result of making dogs feel full earlier and being unable to eat as much in one sitting. Supplements such as s-adenosylmethionine and Denamarin (made of milk thistle and antioxidants) can be also helpful, consult with your vet about these.
It's unfortunate but chemotherapy has not been found to be particularly successful when it comes to treating certain forms of canine liver cancer unless it's a tumor type that is sensitive to chemo. Chemoembolization for non-operable liver tumors (hepatocellular carcinomas) is being studied for use in dogs. Consult with a veterinary oncologist for options.
"Palliative care should not be regarded as "enabling the owner to prolong the inevitable." If an animal's quality of life is suboptimal and cannot be restored with palliative care, then humane euthanasia should be recommended. However, palliative care often is very effective at restoring quality of life or prolonging excellent quality of life."~Dr. Johnny D. Hoskins
General Life Expectancy
Life expectancy is something that can never be exactly predicted. There are too many factors at play such as whether the cancer is localized or has spread to other organs and how much of the tumor can be removed.
Generally, a solitary hepatocellular carcinoma that has not spread to other organs, can be removed through surgery. According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, surgical treatment of hepatocellular carcinoma can lead to survival times commonly exceeding 3.8 years.
Dogs not provided with surgery and treated with conservative medical management only had instead a median survival time of 270 days. Left untreated, these tumors can lead to complications such as internal bleeding which can become life threatening.
Location of the hepatocellular carcinoma may also result in the different survival times. Dogs having the tumor surgically removed from the left lobe had median survival times of 1,460 days, dogs with the tumor located centrally had survival times of 795 days and dogs with the tumor on the right liver lobes had 365 days. These variances can be due to surgical difficulties and variances in vasculature based on location.
On the other hand, surgical removal of bile duct carcinomas (biliary carcinomas) lead to short survival times in dogs due to their predisposition to spread to other organs and regrowth of the tumor in the liver. Sarcomas and carcinoids as well have a poor prognosis, considering that most of these have spread by the time they have been detected.
If your dog has liver cancer, do not despair. Consult with your vet and then talk to a veterinary oncologist to see what options you may have. There are chances that certain types of tumors can be surgically removed and grant affected dogs many more months or years to enjoy.
"When the news reaches a pet owner that a single, large tumor has been discovered in a pet’s liver, pet owners should not despair, as most of these tumors can be surgically removed. The most common type of primary liver tumor, hepatocellular carcinoma, originates from liver cells (hepatocytes) and has a low rate of spread to other organs." ~American College of Veterinary Surgeons
For further reading:
- Life expectancy in dogs with hepatocellular carcinoma
- Dog liver cancer biopsy procedure and costs
- Causes of enlarged liver in dogs
- How steroids affect the dog's liver
- Dog cancer spread to the liver
- Drugs toxic to dog's liver
- Liptak JM, Dernell WS, Monnet E, et al. Massive hepatocellular carcinoma in dogs: 48 cases (1992-2002). J Am Vet Med Assoc 2004;225:1225-1230.
- Kosovsky JE, Manfra-Marretta S, Matthiesen DT, et al. Results of partial hepatectomy in 18 dogs with hepatocellular carcinoma. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc1989;25:203-206.
- DVM360: Research Update: Is surgery best for massive hepatocellular carcinoma in dogs?
- American College of Veterinary Surgeons, Liver Tumors
- DVM360: Chemoembolization for nonresectable liver tumors
- DVM360: Primary hepatic and biliary tract tumors in dogs and cats: An overview