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Bladder Cancer in Dogs: Symptoms, Treatment and Life Expectancy

Reviewed and updated for accuracy on August 19, 2019, by Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM

Bladder cancer in dogs is one of those diseases that doesn’t always give owners a lot of warning that things are about to get really bad. Dogs that are diagnosed with bladder cancer need to be  closely monitored to help them have a good quality of life.

The following information is adapted from the materials that Home to Heaven, an in-home animal euthanasia and hospice care practice, sends to the owners of pets that have been diagnosed with transitional cell carcinoma (TCC), by far the most common type of bladder cancer in dogs.

Hopefully it will help you understand and manage this difficult diagnosis.

What Is Transitional Cell Carcinoma?

Transitional cell carcinoma is an aggressive, malignant cancer, typically of the urinary bladder, that affects dogs, cats and other domestic pets.

Oftentimes it invades into the urethra and/or ureters, causing obstruction of the urinary tract and disruption of normal urine flow.

This type of bladder cancer in dogs most often spreads to local or regional lymph nodes but can spread to any organ system via the bloodstream.

Dog Bladder Cancer Symptoms

Common symptoms of dog bladder cancer include:

  • Inability to urinate

  • Difficult urination

  • Blood in the urine

  • Urinary incontinence

However, the symptoms change as the disease progresses:

Early Stages

  • Straining to urinate

  • Urinary incontinence or frequent urination

  • Bloody urine

  • Licking the penis or vulva

  • Decreased appetite

  • Redness or swelling at the penis tip or vulva

Late Stages

  • Persistent early stage symptoms

  • Vomiting

  • Weight loss

  • Painful abdomen

  • Reclusive behavior

  • Exercise intolerance

  • Difficulty sitting and walking

  • Constant pacing

  • Urine scalding (skin irritation from persistent contact with urine)

  • Possible constipation

  • Anorexia

Crisis — Immediate Veterinary Assistance Needed Regardless of the Disease

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Prolonged seizures

  • Uncontrollable vomiting/diarrhea

  • Sudden collapse

  • Profuse bleeding—internal or external

  • Crying/whining from pain*

*It should be noted that most animals will instinctually hide their pain. Vocalization of any sort that is out of the ordinary for your pet may indicate that their pain and anxiety have become too much for them to bear. If your pet vocalizes due to pain or anxiety, please consult your veterinarian immediately.

Diagnosing Bladder Cancer in Dogs

The diagnosis of bladder cancer in dogs requires a combination of these tests:

  • Urinalysis

  • Urine sediment cytology

  • Bladder tumor antigen testing on a urine sample

  • Ultrasound of the urinary bladder and urethra

  • Biopsy of the affected area (sometimes)

How Is Bladder Cancer in Dogs Treated?

TCC is a difficult disease to treat surgically, but if the tumor is localized to a specific area, surgical removal with or without a tube cystostomy (placing a permanent urinary catheter that exits through the skin) may be an option.

Most cases of TCC in dogs are treated with chemotherapy or radiation due to the nature and location of the tumor.

Some of the common chemotherapeutic agents used for treatment of TCC are:

  • Doxorubicin

  • Mitoxantrone

  • Vinblastine

These are often given in combination with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories that also have some anti-TCC activity.

Cost of Treatment for Transitional Cell Carcinoma

As cost can be a limiting factor when deciding how to move forward, it is important to remember that none of the treatments for TCC are curative.

Surgery and radiation therapies are often expensive procedures, while chemotherapy can be a more affordable option.

Experimental options like bladder removal or synthetic bladders are also available.

A personalized treatment plan is important to slow the progression of TCC in your dog. Talk to your veterinarian about the best protocol for your pet.

What Is the Prognosis for Bladder Cancer in Dogs?

As with any disease, the prognosis is dependent on the extent of the disease, its location and the treatment chosen.

With surgical intervention, an attempt is made to remove as much of the tumor as possible to increase survival time.

Chemotherapy, in addition to surgery, often further improves survival times. Chemotherapy alone may also have benefits.

Palliative treatments like laser ablation (destroys part of the tumor), radiation therapy, and urethral stenting (holds open the urethra and allow the passage of urine) can all help improve a pet’s quality of life.

With appropriate treatment, many dogs with bladder cancer will survive for 6-12 months after diagnosis.

It is important to recognize that with time, transitional cell carcinoma is almost invariably fatal.

When to Euthanize a Dog with Bladder Cancer

Regardless of treatment, if the tumor completely blocks the passage of urine, an unpleasant, painful death is imminent within one to two days.

If your dog is struggling to pass urine, humane euthanasia should be considered to alleviate current pain and prevent future suffering.

Other symptoms that can tell you that it’s time to euthanize your pet include poor appetite, disinterest in drinking, difficulty defecating, withdrawal from family life and a lack of interest in activities that used to bring your dog joy.

Keeping a quality of life diary for dogs with bladder cancer is very helpful.

Every day, rate your dog’s ability to eat, drink, urinate and defecate on a scale of one to five. Also give an overall rating for pain control, anxiety, activity and interest family life.

When you notice a sustained, downward trend in one or more of these criteria, have a conversation with your veterinarian to determine if more treatment is available or if it’s time to consider euthanasia.

© 2011 Home to Heaven, P.C. Content may not be reproduced without written consent from Home to Heaven, P.C. Content updated by Jennifer Coates, DVM 5/2019

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Featured Image: iStock.com/urbazon