Sometimes, I wish I didn’t have any education in veterinary medicine. That is never more true than when one of my own dogs presents with a problem. I go from A to Z in a heartbeat… but strangely enough, this time I was right. My sweet little Leah has been diagnosed with canine lymphoma.
Leah is my rescued smooth-coat Border collie. She was a physically abused and starving mama with 8 nursing puppies when I rescued her in the summer of 2011. She had been abandoned and the scumbags moved away. To this day, she doesn’t like tall, lanky men in baseball caps.
Leah is the only one of my four dogs who was part of my “past life”. She has navigated divorce and nomadic life with me, slept with me, and been through way too much pain with me. She now shares the joy I feel with Alan, and she still walks 3-5 miles a day with me, or joins us on a horseback ride.
A poor appetite
This saga started the day after Thanksgiving. Leah didn’t eat all of her food, and NO, I didn’t give her a bunch of fatty stuff from Thanksgiving dinner! Because she is inclined to dine on inedibles when we take our daily walk, I wasn’t terribly worried when she was punk for a day or two.
We left the following Monday to head back to Colorado for a couple of weeks. Leah was still not herself, so I took some syringes and blood tubes with me. My plan was to submit blood to Colorado State University while we were back home in Colorado.
Because she seemed to be getting worse instead of better, I also made an appointment with a local clinic in Loveland. Prior to that time, I had not connected with a local small animal clinic, only an equine practitioner. I am limited in what I can do with no clinic, no microscope, not much of anything! Plus, when it is my own animal, my brain is fogged…
Leah had developed a few “lumpy-bumpies” that seemed new to me. I love on her and pet her all the time and I notice these things. I had aspirated them myself. That means I had stuck a needle in the lump, pulled back on the syringe, and tried to draw cells or fluid or whatever was in the lump back into the syringe.
Quite often when you do this, it appears that nothing comes back. If you disconnect the needle from the syringe, fill the syringe with air, and then blast it out on a slide, you can often see some cellular material. Many, many times what blasts out of the syringe are fat cells, and the assumption is that the mass is a lipoma, or benign mass of fat. It is possible to see fat globules with the naked eye.
I didn’t have a slide, but I did have glasses around here. However, I was unable to get anything to come out of the syringe. And I most definitely didn’t have the ability to stain a slide and look for other types of cells. This was one of the reasons I wanted to take her to a fully-functioning clinic.
The Wednesday after Thanksgiving I drew blood to take to CSU. She was really, really punk on this day, and refused to even eat some turkey meat. She had a glazed-over look in her eyes. I was very worried. Our clinic appointment was the following day. We dropped off the blood samples late Wednesday morning.
A pathology consult
I had the results in my hand by the time we reached the clinic the next day. All of her blood chemistries were fine. However, her CBC, or Complete Blood Count, showed a slightly elevated white cell count. Even more troubling, the stained slide showed some abnormal cells and the pathologist was consulted.
Of course, by the time we had our clinic appointment on Thursday, Leah seemed to be feeling better! But I was worried about lymphoma with the new lumps and the pathology referral. The gal who examined Leah was pretty sure that was not the case, which gave me some peace of mind. (Remember, my brain is on vacation when it is my animal!) They aspirated all of the lumps at the clinic and stained the slides and they didn’t see anything of concern.
On the Thursday of the exam, the diagnostic lab at CSU requested a second test to further differentiate the origin of the abnormal cells seen on the slide. If the cells appeared to come from a single cell line, that was more diagnostic of a leukemia. If they appeared to come from multiple cell lines, that fit more with “reactive” lymphocytes, not cancer cells. We proceeded with the second test.
Positive for Canine Lymphoma!
The results came back a few days later, and we were still moving in the direction of a lymphoma diagnosis. There was one more test to do, and the results of that test would be diagnostic for lymphoma. They needed a second CBC to be run within 24 hours of that last test, so I submitted additional blood. It was a rough few days…
The final test result came back on Thursday, 2 weeks after Thanksgiving. Positive for Canine T-Cell Lymphoma. We were scheduled to return to Arizona the next Sunday. By some incredible miracle, I was able to get an appointment for Leah with the CSU Oncology team on Friday, the next day! I didn’t know what we were up against, but I really, really wanted them to lay hands on her and give me some guidance before we left.
The bottom line
By the time we had our appointment with the CSU oncologist, we were two weeks out from the start of the problem. Leah was acting totally normal! Additionally, the second CBC showed a normal white cell count and no other abnormalities. Yet, the specific lymphoma tests didn’t lie…
Leah’s physical exam was normal. The oncology team once again aspirated all of the lumps, with nothing significant found. She had no enlarged lymph nodes or other abnormalities. They found nothing that caused them concern!
The consensus of the oncology team is that Leah does, indeed, have Canine T-Cell Lymphoma. The tests didn’t lie. This is such an uncommon diagnosis that there is almost nothing in the veterinary literature about it. It can present as acute and have a fairly rapid course, or it can be “indolent” or chronic.
Here’s the kicker! The oncology team believes that the blood abnormalities were an “incidental finding”… meaning that whatever caused Leah’s malaise was most likely unrelated to the abnormal lymphocytes discovered in her blood. That doesn’t mean that some day this can’t become a problem. It just means that right now, it isn’t a problem!
The plan is to monitor CBC’s on a monthly basis. I will draw another sample the end of January and send it directly to Colorado from Arizona. If, after several months of this, no changes are detected, we’ll drop back to every few months or so. If she shows an elevated white count or a red cell anemia, or clinical signs of problems, there are treatment options. Those options are oral meds which are not terribly expensive, and result in another year or two of quality life at least. She may never need treatment for this!
Obviously, I would much prefer that Leah not carry this diagnosis. Some of what is available for me to read on the internet is still pretty scary. But for now, I am going to rejoice in the fact that she is not actively ill.
Since we have returned to Arizona, Leah has acted happy, healthy, and full of energy. Alan and I are thrilled, and we hope to have many more years with this sweet little dog. So does Kara, because bugging Leah is one of Kara’s favorite pastimes!
I wrote this before we left for Kauai. Since our return from our trip, I did, indeed, do another CBC. Her white count was elevated. Specifically, her lymphocyte count was elevated, but not excessively so. I am writing this update the day before the blog posts. Today, Leah covered 7 miles with us as we rode the horses. She feels fine. There will be no treatment started at this point. The oncologist that I spoke with after Leah’s last CBC indicated they had just seen a dog that had been on treatment for a couple of years and was doing great. I am starting to relax a bit…