Pancreatic Tumors and Cancer in Dogs
Dogs and humans share a lot of similarities in terms of anatomy and physiological processes. Organ systems work pretty much the same across both species, albeit with a few minor and key differences. Dogs also tend to be affected by the same conditions as humans do. This is why it’s common to wonder if dogs can also develop worrisome conditions such as pancreatic cancer and if the disease process is the same or has similar symptoms and treatment options. Keep reading to learn more.
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What does the pancreas do?
The pancreas is a glandular organ located in the abdominal cavity, near the stomach and the small intestine. The organ functions as 2 different glands - an exocrine function responsible for the production and secretion of digestive enzymes and an endocrine function that produces hormones important for metabolic processes.
As a digestive organ, the pancreas produces different digestive enzymes that help break down food into smaller particles for absorption through the intestinal wall. The enzymes produced also help neutralize the acidity from the stomach to protect the walls of the small intestine from damage.
As an endocrine gland, the pancreas is responsible for the production of hormones essential in the metabolism of nutrients in the body. The most important hormone that the pancreas produces is insulin, a hormone that stimulates the uptake of glucose from the blood to the cells and regulates blood sugar levels in the body.
The pancreas also produces glucagon that stimulates the release of stored glucose in the liver when the blood sugar level is low. Additionally, this organ produces digestive hormones like gastrin and amylin that stimulate the production of digestive enzymes from the stomach and itself when food is ingested.
Overall, the pancreas plays an important role in the digestion and metabolism of various nutrients from the diet, and any condition affecting this organ can result in serious problems related to blood sugar regulation and severe digestive and metabolic problems.
Common Tumors of the Pancreas
Pancreatic tumors and cancer are described as the abnormal proliferation of unregulated cells in the pancreas. There are generally two groups of pancreatic tumors - differentiated by the cells from which the tumors originate, namely exocrine pancreatic tumors and endocrine pancreatic tumors.
Exocrine pancreatic tumors have 2 types: adenomas and adenocarcinomas. Adenomas are benign (non-cancerous) tumors, while adenocarcinomas are malignant (cancerous) and can spread (metastasize) to other organ systems and tissues.
Endocrine pancreatic tumors, on the other hand, are divided into 3 types depending on the specific hormone-producing cells they originated from. Insulinomas are active pancreatic tumors that produce excessive insulin. The other two endocrine pancreatic tumors are gastrinomas and glucagonomas, originating from cells producing gastrin and glucagon respectively.
All three endocrine pancreatic tumors are malignant in nature and can spread to different organs in the dog’s body. The prognosis is generally worse for malignant pancreatic tumors compared to benign ones, and clinical signs associated with the disease depend on the specific pancreatic tumor present.
Do pancreatic tumors and cancer affect dogs?
Unfortunately, pancreatic tumors do affect dogs, but the occurrence of the condition, regardless of the specific type, is considered rare in canine patients. The most common pancreatic cancer in dogs is insulinoma, followed by the exocrine pancreatic adenocarcinoma.
Although pancreatic tumors are rare in these animals, it is still important for dog owners to be aware of the condition and the symptoms that go with the disease to allow for earlier detection and possible treatment.
Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer in Dogs
As mentioned, the symptoms associated with pancreatic cancer in dogs differ depending on the specific type the dog may have.
Insulinomas cause excessive production of insulin in the dog’s system resulting in low blood sugar levels and can cause signs such as reduced energy, reluctance to move around and play, and occasional fainting, especially after prolonged periods without meals. Low blood sugar can also lead to tremors, confusion, and seizures.
Adenocarcinomas, on the other hand, result in the excessive production of digestive enzymes from the pancreas and can mimic the symptoms of pancreatitis (severe inflammation of the pancreas). This includes a decrease in the animal’s appetite, profuse vomiting, lethargy, severe abdominal pain, and progressive weight loss.
Other symptoms such as lameness or difficulty in breathing can be observed in dogs with pancreatic cancer that has metastasized to the lungs or bone. If you observe any of the symptoms mentioned above, it’s best to schedule a visit with your vet to rule out the possibility of pancreatic tumors or cancer.
Diagnosing Pancreatic Cancer in Dogs
A diagnosis of pancreatic cancer will depend on the clinical signs and medical history of the dog. It can be challenging since the disease is rare in dogs and the symptoms often wax and wane through the initial stages of the condition.
If your vet suspects pancreatic tumors or cancer based on the symptoms, medical history, and physical exam findings, he or she will request several diagnostic tests to help confirm or rule out the diagnosis. This may include blood tests, blood sugar measurements, x-rays, abdominal ultrasounds, and CT scans.
Diagnostic imaging can help confirm the presence of tumors in the pancreas, but a specific and definitive diagnosis for pancreatic cancer can only be from a biopsy of the pancreatic tumors. Biopsy and staging are important in the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer as it will give your vet a working plan in terms of treatment and prognosis for your dog.
Can pancreatic tumors be treated in dogs?
Treatment for pancreatic cancer will depend on the type and the stage of cancer when it is diagnosed. Insulinomas can be removed surgically, especially if metastasis has not started yet. This is usually followed by chemotherapy to reduce the risk of recurrence.
Surgery is also the best treatment option for cases of pancreatic adenocarcinomas. However, the approach for surgical removal of adenocarcinomas tends to be more complicated and in certain situations, portions of the small intestine may need to be removed. Chemotherapy also tends not to be as effective in treating pancreatic adenocarcinomas in dogs.
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