By Christie Long
It’s unlikely that you’ve ever complained with a spleen-ache or that your doctor encouraged you to take better care of your spleen.
It sits draped nonchalantly across the inside of our abdomen, quietly filtering spent red blood cells from circulation and bolstering our immune systems.
Your dog has a spleen too, and it performs the same basic function.
But we can both live without our spleens, and some canine diseases necessitate the removal of this organ. This most commonly occurs when the spleen becomes enlarged, either in a generalized fashion so that the whole organ is big or focally, which occurs when a growth arises from it.
An enlarged spleen often produces nonspecific signs. The dog may occasionally vomit or have a decreased appetite. Things are fairly cozy in the abdomen of a normal dog, and when the spleen gets larger it often presses on the stomach, causing nausea.
Unfortunately one of the most common causes of focal splenic enlargement is a cancerous growth called a hemangiosarcoma. This is a tumor that arises from blood vessels, and since the spleen has a very large concentration of blood vessels it seems especially prone to developing this type of tumor. Often these tumors grow undetected on the spleen for some period of time until they rupture, causing a life-threatening loss of blood into the abdomen. These tumors are quite aggressive and have typically metastasized, or spread, throughout the body, by the time a rupture occurs. Chemotherapy tends to be only marginally helpful in extending the life of these dogs. And blood loss can be significant enough to cause death on its own.
But there can be other types of growths on the spleen, and these don’t metastasize throughout the body, making them benign in that sense. However they can still break open and bleed, rendering the word “benign" somewhat inappropriate. If a growth is discovered on the spleen before bleeding occurs, or even afterward if the dog is stable, surgical removal of the spleen can be considered. This has the dual benefit of removing the source of clinical signs, whether they be nausea or bleeding, and allowing us to perform a biopsy on the tissue to determine whether the growth is a cancerous hemangiosarcoma or a nonmalignant hemangioma or hematoma.
Before surgery, X-rays of the chest should be performed as well as an abdominal ultrasound. If tumors can be seen in the lung tissue, then surgery should likely not be considered, because removal of the spleen will not treat all of the disease. But if the lungs are clear, and no sites of metastasis can be seen in the abdomen on ultrasound, careful consideration of splenectomy is warranted.
The surgery is fairly straightforward, but careful monitoring during the procedure is important, since removal of the spleen can cause dangerous cardiac arrhythmias during and immediately afterward.
If biopsy results suggest that the growth is nonmalignant, then removal of the spleen tends to be curative.
Christie Long is a veterinarian at the VCA Animal Hospital in Fort Collins, CO. Long left her job in software sales in 2000 to travel for 13 months. Along the way, she was touched by the plight of the animals she saw and somewhere in the Nepalese Himalayas she vowed to return to school to become a veterinarian. While she often finds end-of-life situations heart-wrenching, she considers herself blessed to be called upon as a trusted adviser to families during difficult times. Dr. Long’s family includes her husband and travel partner, Wiley, their son, Wiley IV, their dogs Pancake and Gizmo and cats Sneaky and Sidh.