Friday, January 15, 2010

Sometimes You Shouldn't Wait And See

(Contributed by Lori Whitwam)

My 10-year-old Great Pyrenees/Labrador mix, Ozark, has a mass on his spleen. And in a very strange way, I almost feel lucky.

What? How can someone who adores her big, gentle dog feel lucky that he has something abnormal growing inside him? It’s because I’m so glad that I paid attention to my instincts, listened to my dog, and found out what was wrong much, much earlier than I otherwise would have.

Let me explain.

I tend to be a non-worrier. At this point in my life, and after as many years as I’ve worked in veterinary hospitals, I’ve had a lot of dogs, and I’ve seen countless others. I’ve seen all manner of trauma, as well as chronic and acute illness. I’ve gotten very good at “wait and see.” Whereas some owners are vigilant to the point of scheduling an “emergency” appointment every time their dog sneezes or has soft stool, I tend to wait it out. In truth, many minor things do resolve on their own.

A little over three years ago, I lost my precious “heart dog,” a 12-year-old golden retriever named Ripley, to hemangiosarcoma. He’d been panting more and more over the preceding month, but…

Granted, hemangiosarcoma is nasty, fast-moving, and nearly impossible to catch in its early stages. But should I have listened to my instincts a little more?

With Ozark, it was nothing obvious or overly alarming. He seemed a bit more subdued than usual, but he’s a very mellow dog in general. He needed to go out twice during the night on Saturday, but that happens with dogs sometimes. He always eats snow, but he seemed to be eating it more. He threw up once on Tuesday. Dogs do that. There was no one thing to which I could point and say, “Hey, something is seriously wrong.” But I know my dogs, and my gut was telling me that there was more to it than his subtle symptoms might indicate.

I brought him to work on Wednesday, and his blood work was just a bit off. There were definite signs that his immune system was working on something. We took x-rays, and the mass on his spleen was evident. I immediately panicked, because since I lost Ripley to hemangiosarcoma, anything in my dog that doesn’t belong there is especially terrifying.

Today the ultrasound specialist came and took a good look at what was going on in Ozark’s innards. Given the situation, we got the best possible news. Yes, he has a baseball-sized mass on his spleen. But it appears to be very localized and contained, and there is no evidence of abnormalities in his other organs. It is almost certainly not hemangiosarcoma.

I am always reluctant to subject any of my dogs to surgery. I want to do the least-invasive thing, and keep treatments as natural as possible. But since Ozark is otherwise very sound, with no other underlying health issues, I’ve decided to go ahead and have the spleen removed and the mass biopsied. This will take place on Tuesday, January 19.

We still have no idea if the mass is benign or malignant, but even a benign growth can rupture (especially on the spleen, which is a vascular-rich organ) and the dog will quickly die of internal bleeding. It feels like a time bomb. Of course, if it is malignant, it will grow and spread. So we’ll remove the spleen, and if the mass turns out to be malignant, we will ultrasound again in a few months and see if we can detect any signs of metastasis to other organs. If it is benign, the splenectomy may be curative.

I’m still pretty scared. My dog has a tumor, and he’s going to have major abdominal surgery. That’s never good. Yet I’m glad I listened to that little voice that was telling me that something was “off.” I didn’t put it down as “Oh, he’s getting old,” or “He’s just feeling down with all the cold weather,” or “He must’ve eaten something that didn’t agree with him.” Something in his energy and demeanor, combined with his minor symptoms, and my deep knowledge of him told me it was something more.

It took me a while to arrive at my point, but here it is. Many people are hesitant to schedule an appointment for their pets when they start to feel that way. They don’t want to be a bother. They don’t want the doctor to think they’re over-reacting. They don’t want anyone to think they’re being paranoid or “one of those kinds of pet owners.” They are reluctant to spend the money. If you are one of those people… get over it! Nobody knows your pet better than you do. If something is telling you that something isn’t right, call your vet. Get an appointment. And go!

No, every time your pet vomits is not an emergency. Every time he has a bit of diarrhea it is not a symptom of serious illness. But when small things begin to add up, and you sense that something is wrong, don’t let anyone tell you to stop worrying and wait and see what happens.

Sure, sometimes it will turn out to be nothing. But sometimes it will turn out to be something, and the sooner you know what that something is, the more options you will have and the better chances you have of a successful treatment.

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