The pancreas is a gland organ in the digestive and endocrine systems. It is responsible for two major functions.
One function is hormonal (endocrine). Specifically, the pancreas produces the hormones insulin and glucagon for the body to use and store glucose.
The other function is digestive (exocrine). Particularly, it secretes 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 of the pancreas that produces digestive secretions. (The epithelial tissues form the covering or lining of all internal and external body surfaces.)
Very few pancreatic exocrine tumors are harmless and benign. The most common form of malignant exocrine pancreatic tumors is adenocarcinoma. These tumors can arise from duct cells or acinar cells (exocrine cells of the pancreas).
Adenocarcinomas are very aggressive. They are locally invasive and can spread to other sites in the body.
Fortunately, exocrine pancreatic cancer in dogs is uncommon. It accounts 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.
Also, as in many other cancers, 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. Therefore, it is difficult to tell if a dog showing the symptoms has pancreatic cancer or other benign pancreatic disease.
For example, 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 a dog with pancreatic cancer may also have pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas).
In extreme cases, the dog may also show signs of pancreatic insufficiency. Pancreatic insufficiency means that the pancreas cannot produce enough amounts of enzymes to digest foods properly (i.e. amylase to digest starches, lipases to digest fats, and proteases to digest protein).
As a result, the dog is literally starving as he is not getting enough nutrients from the foods. Over time, the dog becomes weak, suffers from organ failure, and finally dies.
Diagnosis of Canine Pancreatic Cancer
A vet usually will first examine the dog physically. He will palpate the dog’s tummy to see if there is pain and distention. He will feel for the presence of mass, and look for signs of jaundice.
If he suspects pancreatic cancer, he will suggest using abdominal X-rays and ultrasound to diagnose the location and size of the pancreatic tumor. He can also use the results to evaluate whether the cancer has spread to the liver and regional lymph nodes.
But the most effective way to diagnose pancreatic cancer in dogs is using ultrasound-guided fine needle aspiration. This procedure is also less invasive than biopsy.
As mentioned above, adenocarcinomas are very aggressive with a high rate of metastasis. And since the symptoms are non-specific, at the time of diagnosis, most cases of pancreatic cancer will have spread to the lymph nodes and liver.
If the cancer has already spread to other parts of the body, surgery is not effective. Unfortunately, radiation and chemotherapy are also not effective treatments for this disease.
If the dog shows signs of bowel obstruction due to the growth of the tumor, the vet may perform gastrointestinal bypasses as a temporary option. This is not a treatment of the cancer itself. It’s just a palliative measure that allows the passage of food into the intestine.
Due to the location of the tumor, the advanced stage typically seen at diagnosis, and limited treatment options, the prognosis is extremely poor.