February 27, 2011 2:47 PM   Subscribe

What happened as your dog died of cancer?

Last week, after being brought to the vet for a cough, my dog was diagnosed with terminal cancer and estimated to have a few weeks to a few months to live. Even though his cancer has spread around his body (they think it started in his spleen; there are also tumors in his lungs and elsewhere) you’d never know he was sick other than the cough – he still wants to eat (a lot), go on walks, chase cats, roll over for belly rubs, etc.

I asked the oncologist what to expect as the cancer progresses. The oncologist, although spectacular in all other ways, seemed to have some kind of sensitivity training where he began to speak in platitudes. He essentially said that my dog will just become more and more listless and uninterested in life and eventually we will know it is time for him to go. He seemed really resistant to talking about less pleasant things.

Frankly, it would be really great if that were the case but somehow I don’t think that’s all that happens? For example, my dog’s cough has gotten slightly worse and more frequent, and sometimes he seems to lose his breath for a few moments after a harder burst of coughing. I have a hard time believing there will be no expressions of distress to watch out for before he reaches the point of being listless.

What happened as your dog died of cancer? As in, what symptoms arose? Were there expressions of distress? What were the signs that things were going downhill fast or about to go downhill fast?

Bonus question: Have you ever had lung cancer or other lung disease that caused you to cough? If so, would a cough suppressant make you feel better or worse? The oncologist has offered it, and I’m not sure whether to accept, because for me, cough suppressants don’t take away the sensation that I want to cough, only my ability to do so. And it’s really unpleasant to feel like I have to cough but not be able to.
posted by Ashley801 to Pets & Animals (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
He essentially said that my dog will just become more and more listless and uninterested in life and eventually we will know it is time for him to go.

Unfortunately, it really was similar to this for me. I guess some specific signs I can think of were: She became more and more picky about what she'd eat. She started having trouble standing up. She started having accidents.
posted by inigo2 at 2:53 PM on February 27, 2011

A lot of people choose different points to terminate a dying dog. Some will keep him at home until it straight up dies, others would have said "put him to sleep now."

I think most wait until the dog cant get up and go to the bathroom, or stops eating and just lays there. You will see an obvious decline and make your decision.
posted by Max Power at 3:05 PM on February 27, 2011

For us, when my last dog was diagnosed with cancer, it was a matter of days before he was put to sleep. He was a smaller dog getting older (probably 10+), but seemed to be fine. Then he suddenly stopped being able to eat or drink, even if he wanted to. Every time he drank water he would retch everything back. We took him to the vet that day, who kept him overnight and told us about the cancer the next morning. We were told to bring him back when we were ready to say goodbye. It was heartbreaking to see him run to his empty water bowl that day, and he was so frail we couldn't do much for him beyond making things comfortable. It was clear that he was suffering a lot, so the next day we took him back and he died in my arms. It was a very overwhelming experience for everyone involved--a lot of tears--but in the end he didn't have to suffer very long. This seemed to come out of left field, and I'm not sure how things might have turned out differently if the problems had been detected earlier.

I'm so sorry that your family--that includes your dog--are going through this. It's never an easy time.
posted by therewolf at 3:08 PM on February 27, 2011

My doggie died of belly cancer, but he had no symptoms until he started to eat less and became uninterested in doing the things he once enjoyed. For me, that was the sign that he was ready to go. I didn't want to wait until it was clear to me that he was suffering. Pets are good at hiding stuff like that, and I have made that mistake before. But that's just me. Follow your heart.

A cough suppressent (in humans) supresses the feeling of wanting to cough just because there is an irritant, not because there is something you need to cough up but aren't able to. That's the difference between a cough suppressant and an expectorant.

Best of luck to you and your doggie, Ashley801. May whatever comes be gentle for you and your doggie.
posted by puddinghead at 3:16 PM on February 27, 2011

I had a dog die from a tumor on her aorta. It caused her to start going into congestive heart failure and have severe respiratory issues. The CHF made her build up fluid in her chest which I had drained out a couple times to help her comfort and breathing. When I felt she was on the verge of going into respiratory failure I took her to our vet and we ended it. It was time.

She got short of breath. She would just be sitting on her chair and breathing really fast and hard. One way you can measure this is to count your dogs breathes in one minute then compare that number to what you get when you think they're breathing harder. She also couldn't seem to get comfortable. She would be unable to lay down and would sit in a 'tripod' position to ease her breathing. She probably could have continued like this for a few days or weeks but I didn't want to her to progress into constant pain or die from exhaustion by breathing so difficultly like that.

Cancer is hard because it's different for every patient. It's hard to say what to expect.

But symptoms I'd watch for: shortness of breath when they are just sitting is a sign it's getting harder for their body to compensate and it will eventually fail. Tripod positioning. Coughing up any fluid (clear, watery, bloody, mucus, anything). Coughing that doesn't subside. I'd try the suppressant - like cancer, medications are different with different patients and your dog may find some relief from this.

My heart goes out to you and your dog. Good luck to you. My dog loved peanut butter. She pretty much ate only that at the end. I even brought it with us to the vet for the final visit since it made her so happy. Savor those little joys together. I'm sorry for what you're going through.
posted by dog food sugar at 3:33 PM on February 27, 2011

My dog died of bone cancer, so the shutdown of organs wasn't at play like it will be with your dog. I had to put him to sleep before the bone pain was too much for him to bear. But he did have fibrosarcoma earlier in his life, and I also had a cat die from fibrosarcoma as it spread around to organs in her body. Listless and tired is right, especially as their kidneys and liver become overwhelmed.

I've posted this here before: I advise people to choose the 3 primary quality of life issues for their dogs. Playing with his favorite toy, walking on his own out back to go potty, eating a full meal, wanting to climb the stairs to sleep with you--you choose them. You know your dog.

When 2 out of the 3 are gone, it's time to do your duty and say a loving goodbye. It's the best gift we can give our dogs: we bear the pain of holding them as they slip away, before they're too far gone to be terrified or out of their minds with pain.

When the time does come, try to 1) give your dog the Best Dog Day Ever, whatever that means for him, and 2) have your vet come to the house to do it if at all possible.

I wish you luck and peace.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 3:41 PM on February 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

Our dog died after developing a tumor which was inoperable. He was his normal self for awhile, but as time went on he became less and less interested in life. He became a much pickier eater, wanted to play and go for walks much less (and eventually not at all), slept much more than before, and generally withdrew. When he stopped eating entirely, we knew it was time. You will know too.

Of course, you won't want to wait if your dog appears to be in pain.

I am so sorry.
posted by bearwife at 3:54 PM on February 27, 2011

My friend's dog has just had to be put down after developing a tumour on its lung, it went down hill very rapidly, from a little cough through to violent hacking and bringing up blood in under a week. It lost its (usually hearty) appetite at the same time. Six days after it stopped eating they had it put down at home. (They insisted the vet came out as car journeys always distressed the dog.)
posted by biffa at 4:13 PM on February 27, 2011

Our dog died from lymphoma. For our guy, he was his usual happy-go-lucky self until the last week. He had been on chemo and steroids (which had worked great for about 6 months, and then stopped being effective), and the difference was very noticeable. The number one symptom we noticed was how tired he was. He didn't want to move around much. His neck was swollen (from enlarged lymph glands), and his breathing became somewhat wheezy. This progressed throughout the week. The end came very quickly and suddenly though. He had gone on a car ride and was still mostly up and around all day, and then that night he was laboring to breathe, couldn't eat or drink, and couldn't walk. He was gone early the next morning.

As everyone said, it will vary with each individual, but we wish that we didn't wait until the very very end for him. It was awful and painful to watch, and we wish we could have spared him that (we couldn't get him to the emergency vet in time, as he passed before we arrived). You certainly don't want to wait until your pal is in pain. We learned from our experience, and no matter how painful that vet visit can be, it's much better than the pain of watching them suffer at home.

So sorry that you have to go through this. It's so hard to lose a good friend. *hugs*
posted by I_love_the_rain at 4:13 PM on February 27, 2011

My dog started losing control of her bladder. We took her to the vet. He diagnosed cancer with a few weeks to live. She was tired a lot but running around and happy right up until the end a week later. She suddenly lost the ability/strength to walk so we put her to sleep. I can't emphasize enough that she was really happy right until the very end. And it wasn't painful, she was just really disconcerted and panicky that she couldn't walk. Afterall, she never once thought about her own mortality, just about her usual fetch, belly rubs, treats routine.
posted by Foam Pants at 4:16 PM on February 27, 2011

My ten-year-old dog developed cancer in a similar fashion - they think it started in the spleen and she had any small tumors elsewhere. She was very much like her normal self - loved walks and fetch, started to slow down, eating less, and kind of listless, though it would come and go. She spent a lot of time sleeping, and stopped eating treats, but then she would rally for short games of fetch.

There was no sign that she was in pain, just a general slowing down - she stopped coming up the stairs, stopped bringing me toys to throw, wasn't able to walk up or down steps. But she still wagged to great us and liked sleeping in the sun. Then about a week later, her breathing became labored and she wasn't interested in eating - she just wanted to sleep all the time, and we had to help her walk outside to pee, because her legs wouldn't hold her. That more dramatic part happened over three or four days and that was our signal.

I am sorry.
posted by Ink-stained wretch at 5:27 PM on February 27, 2011

My dog died of liver cancer, but it had also spread everywhere by the end. He just started acting kind of... old. Like, he would wag his tail slowly when you entered the room, instead of jumping up and down and running in circles. He walked more carefully than he used to. Didn't eat as much. Peed on the carpet a few times and then got really embarrassed. When you took him for a walk, he'd go half a block and then lie down. We had him put down when he basically stopped eating, which was a couple of months after the other symptoms had become noticeable.
posted by lollusc at 5:43 PM on February 27, 2011

>What happened as your dog died of cancer? As in, what symptoms arose? Were there
>expressions of distress? What were the signs that things were going downhill fast or about
>to go downhill fast?

Nobody can tell you exactly what is going to happen.
There are some gateposts that I never want to see again, though:
  • When your dog is in enough pain that death is the only relief.
  • When your dog has forgotten the things that make them happy.
  • When your dog is afraid because of their strange and sudden disabilities.
  • When your dog can't live in the house anymore because of toilet accidents.
  • When you resent your dog because they are so sick.

I haven't met anyone who thought they put their dog down too early.
Start spoiling your dog.
It's too bad you can't actually spoil them to death.
posted by the Real Dan at 6:13 PM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Ahhh, thanks so much, everyone. You have no idea how much it helps me to hear what you have to say. I went out and got the cough suppressant so we're getting started on that. Here is a photo (from yesterday) of the one you're helping me help.
posted by Ashley801 at 7:55 PM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I just wanted to pass along information for Argus Institute. I know this isn't what you asked for exactly but here are some of their services - they are free - I'm 99% sure you don't have to be in Colorado and can just chat with them over the phone and get their advice:

We are available Monday - Friday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. and our support services are complimentary.


Advocate for You and Your Pet's Needs

Fostering the partnership with you and your veterinary care team

Facilitating decision-making

Providing updates during surgery and high-risk procedures

Navigating financial situations

Assisting during crises
posted by fieldtrip at 10:55 PM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Your situation sounds similar to my dog's. She was about 12 years old, had a healthy vet checkup, then 6 months later started with a cough and not wanting to do her full regular walks. When we took her to the vet, they found the cancer and that it was quite advanced. Her good health otherwise allowed her to basically adapt and not show symptoms until it was that advanced. They said a month or at best three.

It was actually pretty much as your vet described for us. She would have her good/bad days in terms of wanting to do walks (but she would always want to go out at least a little), her cough got worse and it sounded horrible but it didn't seem to actually hurt her (no whimpering or looking hurt/confused afterwards). Finally she started showing less interest in her dog food. So we switched to chicken, roast beef, chunky stew, eggs - basically whatever she wanted. When she stopped showing interest in that or any other food, and her days were very low energy more often than not we knew the clock had run out.

So she was never in a lot of pain or had accidents or couldn't walk or had violent puking or bleeding or anything, so we were thankful for that and that we could have a nice last day where we walked around and hung out at the beach.
posted by mikepop at 5:56 AM on February 28, 2011

Oh, Ashley, your dog is so funny and beautiful! What a smile. He looks lovely.

I hate, hate, hate platitudes like "You'll know when it's time." I used to share a cubicle with this woman who talked endlessly about how she'd put her cat to sleep the year before and how she just knew it was time to do so. But she also claimed that her cat's ghost came to her every other midnight, so I figured she was just somewhat dippy. When my dog got sick, she told me I'd know when it was time, and I was like, "Oh, my god, can it, you loony thing." I was resistant to the idea that there would be this moment of clarity when I'd be like, "Oh! Time for my beloved dog to die!"

Actually, that coworker was completely right. I guess it's one of those things where the cliché is true? One morning, my dog changed entirely. She was just a different dog. She was coughing. She had no energy. She didn't care whether I was there or not. She was irritable and she looked miserable. I took her to the vet. I asked them to put her to sleep. It was probably the hardest thing I've ever done, but I never questioned whether or not it was the right time. The phrase still sets my teeth on edge, but it's the total truth.
posted by pineappleheart at 6:25 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think my situation was a little different than some of the other stories here because of a different type of cancer.

My Lab mix Charlie developed lymphoma that started on the front lower gum line in his jaw. Initially we had a lump removed that was benign, but after a couple of months another growth appeared that was malignant.

We chose not to pursue chemotherapy because of his age (10 years) and the financial cost.

The lump on his mouth would bleed, but at first only if he bumped it. For several months we just dealt with it and kept rolls of paper towels handy in various rooms to catch him and put pressure on his mouth when we saw him bleeding. He would wake up in the night licking at nothing and bleeding. But generally, it only bled a few drops and we could stop it by holding pressure.

Over about 9 months, it spread into his neck and his lymph nodes swelled to the size of tennis balls. Our vet told us that since the lymph nodes in his neck had metastasized, it wouldn't have been long before he got sick and his health would have declined rapidly. It became clear to us that he wasn't comfortable. He would move from place to place and didn't lie still very long, and would groan as he lay on the floor. We made the decision to have him euthanized when he reached the point where his mouth would bleed excessively whenever he moved at all.

He was still able to eat, so his last night, I grilled him a steak for dinner, and we let him eat two large Hershey's chocolate bars, because he always wanted our chocolate so badly.

Maybe we chose to euthanize a little early by some people's standards, but I know we spared Charlie the worst of the suffering. It's a very difficult decision that only you can make, because you know your friend and will see the changes in their behavior.
posted by Fleebnork at 8:21 AM on February 28, 2011

I second pineappleheart. You know your dog, you know when your doggy has lost it. " He essentially said that my dog will just become more and more listless and uninterested in life and eventually we will know it is time for him to go." They may sound like platitudes but they are both true.

My cattledog spent a day or so lying in one spot looking up at whomever came by to comfort her, but couldn't manage even a tail wag. It was time, and i knew it.

This will put off many of you, but I live in the country and I believe that we should go back to the earth wholesomely. I wanted to take her out and let the other critters of the land reclaim her nourishment. Instead, I had my vet put her down, filling her full of poisonous chemicals that would linger in the environment and probably kill other animals, be they maggots or coyotes or turkey vultures or whatever. I have always regretted not killing her myself instead of hiring an exterminator. I have no wish for power of life or death over another, but I simply paid someone else to do it for me. I won't ever do that again.
posted by davoid at 8:32 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

My dog had nasal cancer--a tumor that was between/above it's eyes and that poor little girl suffered way too long. While she still "got around", did basic functions like going potty/eating/drinking and once and a while a run, a dog who sneezes blood = suffering. That tumor grew, and grew, and grew and I'm sure it wasn't comfortable. It was 6 months or more of the poor dog doing that. I wish my parents put her down sooner but my dad was in the "she's fine. She still runs around!" camp.

Now that I'm an adult dog owner, I would have put her down sooner. It's hard, really hard because you may view them as a friend/child. But I don't believe anyone/thing should suffer. I'm not sure how your dog will feel or the symptoms of their particular cancer but in humans lung cancer/tumors is extremely fatal (usually 3 months or less). Liver cancer--I can't say. My mom has metastatic breast cancer and tumors in her liver and will probably die of liver failure. My husband's father died of cirrhosis and he said it was a brutal/grusome death.

Any slow death is a painful/scary one. Do the right thing when you see that happen.

Sorry you're going through it. My heart goes out to you.
posted by stormpooper at 11:20 AM on February 28, 2011

Really sorry about your dog, Ashley801.

My dog had lung cancer. We opted not to pursue aggressive medical treatment due to her elderly age. She didn't seem to actively be in pain, and she still enjoyed food and her regular activities. As for symptoms of the cancer's progression, we noticed her gradually losing energy and breathing harder on walks, and some days she just seemed kind of lethargic and without her old spark. There was no one moment when I said "yes, NOW is the time"... more like I began to think "she is still happy but getting worse, and if I wait too much longer, it will be too long."

If there is one mistake in my life I could take back, it would be letting a previous pet of mine suffer in near-agony while I let the vet try hopeless treatments, and waited far too long to euthanize. I swore I would never make that mistake again. So I had my dog put down before the good days started to outnumber the bad. I would rather she miss out on a couple weeks of feeling merely OK, rather than suffer through one unnecessary hour of struggling to breathe. Having experienced breathing difficulties myself (not with lung cancer but with a bad allergic reaction where my throat started to close up) I know that the feeling is a panic-inducing torment, and I'm glad I didn't chance putting my sweet girl through that. She was still reasonably happy and enjoying herself on her last day, and she had a peaceful and stress-free end, falling asleep next to me. Her last conscious movement was to raise her head and put it in my lap.

I'm very glad we gave her that peaceful end and let her go out still happy.

(As for cough suppressants, personally, I've found them a great relief when I've been really sick.)
posted by spiny at 8:36 PM on February 28, 2011

I have read this question about 10 times and tried to answer. And debated whether I will answer because the pain of formulating an answer is so overwhelming.

Just yesterday I had to opt to let go of my beautiful and wonderful cancer stricken friend of exactly 10 years, 2 weeks. She had thyroid carcinoma, stage 4, with lung involvement. She was diagnosed November 12, started Palladia (the anticancer medication for dogs that is now released for use by vets--at the time it was available from only certain clinics) 4 days later. The Palladia worked really well, shrinking her neck tumor to nothing. Her lung tumors also shrank to nothing. And then it just didn't work anymore. We were lucky in that she was only sick one day. Even in November, with a huge tumor on her thyroid, she was never sick. But Sunday, she slowed down and the slowing down progressed over the day and night to the point where Monday morning she was really not okay. Her breath was really quick, followed by a scary long pause in breathing. She was wobbly on her feet. And I decided to not be someone who would force her to go through the torment of further testing and symptom treatment to prolong her existence for my own need to have her with me. I didn't really need a urinalysis or blood draw or x ray or any other test to tell me what was killing her. And I had the option to tell cancer that it may win the war, but it's we win this battle. This battle for relief. This battle against suffering. So I called the vet, the vet came and she went to sleep on her spot on the couch. I fucking hate cancer.

She had a great appetite the whole time, though. We went for an hour long walk on Friday. She was fine. Until suddenly she wasn't. My vet was surprised and said some dogs swing back and forth from well to sick to well again. So your dog may do this. Mine did not.

From the moment of diagnosis until now I have felt like there was a chasm that opened before me and that when I lost her I would have to jump in the chasm and crawl my way to the other side and start becoming this new person. And that feeling is pretty accurate. I did jump into a chasm and am currently clawing my way to being okay. I don't really have much motivation to become that new person right now. I don't want to be this new person that has a life without my beautiful dog in it, but I gotta.

That's what it was like when my dog died of cancer.
posted by hecho de la basura at 11:51 AM on March 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

Although you didn't ask a question per se with your recent update, I'd like to answer a question nonetheless:

Yes, your dog is an adorable senior citizen! What a handsome old man. Good on you.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 5:21 AM on March 2, 2011

Response by poster: I just want to thank everyone again from the bottom of my heart for all of your information and very kind words. It helped a lot. My baby died today. I was terrified beforehand, but it was the best I could have hoped for, he was totally relaxed, and then just put his head down and went to sleep.

I'm going to make a record here of the way his illness progressed in case someone in the same situation finds this thread in the future. I'm just going to copy my notes.

Diagnosis 2/21
2/22 Tired; went for 25 minute walk, needed several tries to stand up. Drank water well. Ate well.
2/23. Same as yesterday. Started Piroxicam
2/24. Extremely tired, slept all day until around 9 pm. Ate heartily when I offered to feed him by hand. Took 40 minutes to walk to the end of the driveway and back, many pauses. No BM.
2/25 Good day, perked up significantly when friend came over, ate on his own, drank well/ Good walk to F's house and back. Very interested in cat, tried to chase cat. Also tried to eat cat's food.
2/26 Very good day, ate at noon by himself, walked to meadow and back without many pauses. Good BM.
2/27 Coughing starting to pick up. Started cough suppressant.
2/28 Cough suppressant seemingly 60-70% effective. Cough gets worse at night.
3/1 Rough day, bad coughing, didn't want to eat after cough meds, just wanted to sleep. Before cough meds all was good - drank, wanted to walk, good BM. Started Guafenesin (prescription cough suppressant.)
3/2 No notes
3/3 Guafenesin becoming ineffective for cough, adding Tussigon. Seem to wear off every 5-6 hours, though I'm supposed to wait 8-12 hours between doses.
3/4 No notes
3/4-3/6 Cough very bad. Now seems to lose his breath after a bad bout of coughing and starts to pant. Hard breathing, wheezing. Hard for him to stand without support.
3/7. Didn't want to get up, didn't want to stand when lifted to feet. Suddenly indicated need to go out, and had BM almost immediately once outside. Can't support self on feet. Bad coughing. Going to vet tomorrow.

Today we went to the vet, who took an X-Ray which showed fluid surrounding his lungs. The vet said he was worried if we didn't put him down today, he would die on his own, so it was obvious that it was the time. He was actually having a very good morning, and was very calm, not coughing much and totally relaxed all the way until the end (the vet was wiling to take care of everything outdoors, and it was a sunny beautiful day).
posted by Ashley801 at 8:10 PM on March 8, 2011

Oh Ashley801. Thanks for the update - so sorry for your loss. How lovely of you vet to go outside. I'm so glad it was a beautiful day for you both. Take care.
posted by dog food sugar at 9:48 AM on March 9, 2011

Thank you for the update. It is so hard to be brave in the face of foreknowledge of such great loss. I hope you are able to find a comfortable path out of the dark tangle of grief and find solace in remembering the gift of such a lovely friend in your life.
posted by hecho de la basura at 10:09 AM on March 9, 2011

Ashley801, it sounds like you're a thoughtful, loving owner, and that you did right by your dog. I wish you well.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 3:18 PM on March 9, 2011

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