The pancreas is a gland organ in the digestive and endocrine systems. It is responsible for two major functions.
One function is hormonal (endocrine) which is to produce the hormones insulin and glucagon for the body to use and store glucose.
The other is digestive (exocrine) which is to secrete pancreatic enzymes that enable the body to digest and absorb fats and proteins in the digestive tract.
These enzymes travel from the pancreas to the small intestine through a small tube called the pancreatic duct.
Canine pancreatic cancer is mostly in the form of exocrine tumors of the pancreas.
These tumors arise from the epithelial tissues (they form the covering or lining of all internal and external body surfaces) of the pancreas that produces digestive secretions.
The most common form of these exocrine pancreatic tumors is adenocarcinoma which is ductular or acinar in origin, i.e. these tumors arise from duct cells or acinar cells.
Adenocarcinomas are malignant and aggressive – they are locally invasive and can metastasize to other sites in the body.
Benign exocrine pancreatic tumors are very rare.
Exocrine pancreatic cancer in dogs is uncommon, accounting for less than 0.5% of all canine cancers.
As in many other forms of cancers, canine pancreatic cancer occurs more commonly in older dogs. Breed-wise, Airdales, Spaniels, and Boxers tend to be more susceptible to this disease.
The underlying cause of pancreatic cancer in dogs is not clear.
Symptoms of Canine Pancreatic Cancer
Many symptoms of pancreatic cancer in dogs are non-specific and as such cannot be differentiated from the symptoms associated with other benign pancreatic disease.
A dog with pancreatic cancer may show signs such as:
- Appetite loss
- Weight loss
- Abdominal distension
- Hyperglycemia (elevated blood sugar level)
- Ascites (fluid accumulation in the peritoneal cavity)
- Jaundice (the skin and mucous membranes may appear yellow)
Sometimes the signs may also be accompanied by pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas).
In extreme cases, signs of pancreatic insufficiency (inability to digest food properly due to a lack of digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas) may also be shown.
Diagnosis of Canine Pancreatic Cancer
Initial diagnosis is based on physical examination of the dog (e.g. palpating the patient’s abdomen, feeling for presence of mass, distension, and pain; and looking for signs of jaundice).
If pancreatic cancer is suspected, abdominal X-rays and ultrasound can be used to diagnose the location and size of the pancreatic tumor. They can also be used to evaluate whether the cancer has spread to the liver and regional lymph nodes.
Ultrasound-guided fine needle aspiration of the tumor is perhaps the most effective way (and less invasive than biopsy) to diagnose pancreatic cancer in dogs.
Conventional Treatment of Canine Pancreatic Cancer
As mentioned above, adenocarcinomas are very aggressive with a high rate of metastasis.
Because the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer are not distinctive and resemble those of other benign pancreatic disease, at the time of diagnosis, most cases of pancreatic cancer will have spread to the lymph nodes and liver.
Surgery is not effective if the cancer has already metastasized.
If there are signs of bowel obstruction due to the growth of the tumor, palliative gastrointestinal bypasses (allow the passage of food into the intestine) may be performed as a temporary option.
Radiation and chemotherapy are not effective treatments for this disease.
Due to the location of the tumor, the advanced stage typically seen at diagnosis, and limited treatment options, the prognosis is extremely poor.
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