Friday, September 14, 2007

The Value of Senior Testing

(Contributed by Lori Whitwam)

We always encourage regular health screening for pets, especially as they get older. I’ve always believed in that, but today I got a first-hand lesson on just how important it truly is.

Yesterday, I took my 14 year old golden retriever, Sprocket, with me to work so that Dr. White could do a chiropractic evaluation and adjustment. His last bloodwork had been nine months ago, so I knew it was past time to check him over. His adjustment went well, but his bloodwork was cause for serious concern. His white blood cells and other infection-fighting indicators were very, very low, which meant they were being used up somewhere in his body faster than he was producing them. His liver and kidney values were slightly elevated. In addition, his urinalysis showed his urine was very dilute. The doctors decided to do x-rays, looking for any abnormalities that might explain what was going on.

The x-rays were even more frightening than his bloodwork. As any of you know, if you’ve ever tried to “read” an x-ray, they can be tough to decipher. They’re only a two-dimensional image of a three-dimensional animal. But Sprocket had what appeared to be a large, round mass on or near his liver. His spleen was larger than it should be, and appeared bumpy. Putting all these clues together, the most likely diagnosis was hemangiosaracoma, a deadly cancer of the blood vessels. It tends to not show any symptoms until it is very advanced and has already metastasized to other organs in the body. Occasionally a dog is fortunate and it’s caught early, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Most often, dogs live days, to perhaps a couple of months after diagnosis. Surgery and chemotherapy may buy another month or two, if you are very, very lucky.

I lost my 12 year old golden, Ripley, less than 10 months ago to hemangiosarcoma. He lived only 11 days after his diagnosis. Was it possible I was going to be going through that loss all over again, with the sweet and gentle-natured Sprocket? I lost 7 year old Ruxpin, another golden, just six months ago to sepsis. How would I bear losing my three golden-boys in less than a year? Sprocket had been fine. He didn’t have any signs of illness, such as vomiting, diarrhea, fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, or unusual pain or weakness.

I spent today seeing Dr. Ralph Weischelbaum for an ultrasound. The outstanding image quality of an ultrasound allows the doctor to virtually “see” inside the body, and get a much more detailed picture of what’s going on in there. I walked in with a heavy heart, dreading what was to come. Sprocket, as always, was pleasant, mellow, and totally agreeable. Dr. Ralph looked at the bloodwork and the x-rays I’d brought along. Then the ultrasound began. I kept one hand on Sprocket, and both eyes on the display screen. As the other doctor manipulated the ultrasound device over his abdomen, I was afraid to listen. Then I heard, “…nothing that looks like hemangiosarcoma.” As things progressed, we looked at his liver, kidneys, heart, lungs, adrenal glands, prostate, gall bladder and spleen. His spleen was slightly enlarged and had a patchy surface, but this is how it reacts to an irritation or infection, while it’s doing its job. We’d begun antibiotics the night before, and that will most likely resolve the spleen issues. His adrenal glands and kidneys are slightly large, but nothing too worrisome in a 14 year old dog. Best of all, the large round object seen on his x-rays was actually his pylorus, the outlet from the stomach. Apparently, Sprocket just has a really, really big one! His liver is fine, and not being taken over by hemangiosarcoma, as I’d feared.

Dr. Ralph suggested testing him for Cushing’s disease, which is a malfunction of the adrenal glands. I had a cocker spaniel who had Cushing’s, and I maintained him on diet and supplements, no prescription medication, and he lived to be 13. If Sprocket does turn out to have Cushing’s, I can deal with that! My mantra as I entered Dr. Ralph’s office was, “Anything but hemangio, anything but hemangio…” I fully expected to find some sort of cancerous invasion, either in the spleen or liver, and couldn’t believe the wonderful news that my boy is not in imminent danger of leaving us!

So, what did this teach me? What point does it prove? Sprocket looked fine. I didn’t take him in because he’d stopped eating, was losing weight, was vomiting, or suddenly couldn’t get off the floor. I only took him for routine senior bloodwork. Though he was showing no symptoms, that bloodwork and the urinalysis showed something was wrong, and needed immediate attention.

If it had been hemangiosarcoma, he would have had a better chance for more time with us, because we’d have been catching it earlier than most. (Many hemangio cases come to light because the dog has an internal bleed and collapses, or becomes very weak and pale.)

If it is “only” Cushing’s disease, I’m happy that it was caught so early, because left untreated, Cushing’s can do serious damage to the liver and kidneys, beginning a cascade of symptoms that eventually leads to death. Now, we’ll be able to put together a treatment plan consisting of diet and carefully-selected supplements, we’ll recheck a urinalysis frequently, and we’ll monitor his kidney and liver values.

A simple blood test probably just added months and months to my “old boy’s” life. I’ve always believed in the value of those tests, especially for older pets, but now I have living proof!