Pet Points: Lymphoma in dogs and cats is very treatable

Every veterinarian develops a technique for performing a comprehensive physical exam. I often steady dogs on a lift table with my hand on their flank and then at the back of their knee. My other hand palpates the front of the shoulder and rubs beneath the neck. That way, I can greet and calm the dog while also checking the lymph nodes.

We examine every dog at every visit for enlarged lymph nodes, a sign of lymphoma. It’s a common cancer in dogs, cats and humans; some dog breeds are especially prone to lymphoma.

I examine cats from head to tail, if possible. We first look at their eyes and in their mouths because some cats resent further handling. At least we have checked their teeth. We especially try to palpate the abdomen and the kidney area. Cats often have enlarged abdominal lymph nodes or thickened intestinal loops. Lymphoma in cats is commonly found in the intestinal tract. In dogs and cats, it can also affect the skin, bone marrow, and upper and middle back.

Early diagnosis is important, and any enlarged nodes or unusual symptoms require an immediate exam and diagnostic workup. That may include a complete physical exam, blood tests, X-rays and possibly an ultrasound examination. Suspected cancerous areas may be biopsied or aspirated with a needle.

Without treatment lymphoma is often fatal in four-eight weeks. Yet it is a very treatable form of cancer. With chemotherapy about 75 percent of cases go into remission. After treatment life expectancy can be six-12 months. A few pets live more than a year after diagnosis and can discontinue medication. Even those pets that relapse after chemotherapy can be given rescue treatments that can get the cancer back under control. 

Treatment is often referred to a veterinary oncologist or an internal medicine specialist. Their experience with complicated cases make for a better outcome. Occasionally treatments are prescribed by a primary care veterinarian.

With chemotherapy we often see immediate results; pets are back to normal in days or weeks. Side effects include low white blood counts, vomiting and diarrhea. We do not see hair loss. Less complex treatments have significantly shorter life expectancy.

We look at lymphoma as a treatable disease. As with heart disease, liver or kidney problems, treatment can result in extended lives, and that means owners have more quality time with their pets.

Lawrence Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic. His biweekly column is intended to educate pet owners. Consultation with a veterinarian is necessary to diagnose and treat individual pets. If you have a question you’d like addressed in Pet Points, email Please include your name and municipality or neighborhood.