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Diagnosing Bone Cancer in Dogs: What to Expect

When we first hear that our dog might have bone cancer, we tend to beat ourselves up and wonder “how did we miss it?”

First, forgive yourself; the symptoms aren’t always easily noticed.

Dog Bone Cancer Warning Signs

Sometimes bone cancer makes a sudden appearance as a lump in the leg, or in worst case scenario, as a pathologic fracture.

But in most dogs, bone cancer shows up slowly, often over a few months. A normally energetic dog may begin fatiguing after walking or playing. Some dogs will grumble when touched in a certain spot. A few dogs lose their appetite.

In older dogs, these symptoms are often mistaken for arthritis and in younger dogs, muscle sprains. Many vets opt to take the least scary (and most cost-effective) route to a diagnosis before even mentioning “bone cancer.” The dog is usually put on pain relief medicines to see if the problem goes away. Usually another round of tests aren’t ordered until it becomes clear the medicines aren’t helping.

Diagnosis: What to Expect

One of the first steps in diagnosing bone cancer is for your veterinarian to perform a complete physical exam, blood tests and x-rays. “In most cases, bone cancer can be diagnosed with an X-ray,” says Tripawd member and long-time supporter Dr. Pam Wiltzius of River Road Animal Hospital in Puyallup, Washington.

In the following video, Dr. Wiltzius explains the process of diagnosing canine bone cancer in dogs:

Learn about amputation and what to expect with Tripawds eBook, “Three Legs & A Spare: A Canine Amputation Handbook.”

When it comes to diagnosing bone cancer in dogs, Dr. Wiltzius shares these facts:

The most common locations where bone cancer appears are:

In the front legs, normally in the:

  • distal radius (above the wrist joint)
  • proximal humerus (upper arm bone, close to the shoulder blade)

Or, in a dog’s rear legs, in the:

  • Proximal tibia, or
  • Distal femur (right above or below knee cap)

Once your vet takes the radiograph of the suspected area, she may consult with a specialist who can confirm whether or not a bone tumor is growing in the limb. If the bone tumor is abnormal in appearance, a biopsy may need to be taken.

There are two types of biopsies:

Fine Needle Aspirate

According to Dr. Wiltzius, a fine needle aspirate biopsy is fairly easy to perform. The veterinarian will inject a needle into the tumor area that’s seen on the radiograph. Besides performing this biopsy on the leg, this type of biopsy can also be done when tumors are present on other parts of the skeleton, such as the skull or spine. After withdrawing the cells, the sample is sent to the lab and examined for cancer.

The disadvantage of a fine needle aspirate is that it can sometimes give a false-negative reading because the bone tumor may be too hard to reach with the needle.

Bone Biopsies

VCA L.A. Oncology Vet Dept. ChihuahuaWhen a fine needle aspirate gives an inconclusive reading, a veterinarian will recommend a bone marrow biopsy. This is performed using a wider needle instrument that must reach through the cortex (center) of the bone, in order to get a large enough area to sample.

A bone biopsy can provide a definitive diagnosis, but it is extremely painful, requires recovery time and by taking such a large sample of bone, it can put the dog at risk of a pathological fracture. In most cases, this procedure is bypassed if a dog parent knows they will proceed with amputation no matter what the final diagnosis.

Where you live may play a role in whether or not your vet thinks its worthwhile to perform the bone biopsy procedure. For example, in areas where canine fungal diseases are prevalent (the U.S. Midwest and Southwest), vets may recommend it. This is because fungal infections can look like bone cancer on radiographs and cause similar symptoms. If your vet thinks a fungal disease is the issue, it might make more sense to take a bone biopsy prior to amputation, since fungal infections can be treated and don’t require removing the leg.

Can a Biopsy Determine Survival Time?

Bone cancer biopsies help determine the grade of the cancer, but the grade won’t determine survival time. According to Dr. Wiltzius, if a biopsy shows a high grade bone cancer, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the dog won’t live longer than dog with a low grade bone cancer. And the reverse is true; a dog with a low grade bone cancer might not last as long as a dog with a higher grade.

What does help determine the survival time is determining whether or not the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. If cancer is found in the lymph node, it indicates that the cancer has spread beyond the leg and the dog’s survival time may be shorter than most.

However, according to Dr. Wiltzius, just because there’s cancer in the lymph node doesn’t mean you shouldn’t proceed with amputation. For most dogs who are suitable amputation candidates, the most humane thing that can be done for the dog is to remove the source of the horrible pain they are in as soon as possible and let them live out their days pain-free. Whether chemotherapy is chosen doesn’t mattter at that point; all that matters is that the pain is gone.

Download Tripawds eBook for Fast Dog Amputation Recovery AnswersLearn more about amputation and what to expect with Tripawds downloadable eBook, “Three Legs & A Spare: A Canine Amputation Handbook.”

What About Lung Mets?

Most vets will take chest radiographs before amputation. If lung metastasis (cancer growths) aren’t seen in the lungs, it’s a good sign that the cancer hasn’t aggressively spread throughout his body. But even with “clean” radiographs, remember that 90 percent of dogs already have cancer cells in their lungs at the time of surgery – it’s just that the cells are too microscopic to be seen. Sadly, clean lungs at the time of surgery doesn’t necessarily mean that cancer won’t appear there later.

But what’s important to understand before deciding to proceed with amputation, is that as long as your dog is not showing inward (or outward) signs of cancer, she will have a better chance of living a longer, healthier life and beating the bone cancer odds once the affected limb is removed. If a dog is a good candidate for life on three legs, just because a dog has a high grade tumor doesn’t necessarily mean that amputation is a bad idea.

Many thanks to Dr. Pam Wiltzius for helping us bring this impawtant information to the Tripawds community. Stay tuned for more canine bone cancer and amputation surgery information.

More recommended reading: Colorado State University Animal Cancer Center: Bone Cancer in Dogs.

13 Responses to “Diagnosing Bone Cancer in Dogs: What to Expect”

  1. My 9 year old rottweiler was diagnosed 3 days ago, it was the worst day of my life. We noticed Peyton had a lump on her rear leg. We went to the vet thinking, oh it’s just an infection or a cyst since she is an older dog. To our worst fears after the x Ray’s came back the vet just asked us to look at them, we asked is it bad? She replied yes. We asked if it was cancer? She said yes. She as we are looking at the xrays I am just in so much pain I just walk out, and go back to be with Peyton. She came in the room with us and gave us our options, and gave us a 30 day period before the cancer kills her. So we can give her 4 months more of life by amputating her leg, or do chemotherapy that would give her six months more. We decided since she has lived a full life and did not want to put her through all of that, we decided to take her home with medicine and live her life out until either she passes or her quality of life is no longer good and we would have her euthanized. I hope this helps.

    • David we are so sorry about the diagnosis. We know how upsetting it is. And whatever anyone chooses for their animal, as long as it’s made with love and the individual animal in mind, that is the only “right” decision. Your love for Peyton rings true in your choice for palliative care. We hope she has many good days ahead with you. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • I too just found out my baby girl Mi Bella has leg cancer . I have not stopped crying . she is a saint . It is not in her lungs yet and they say her heart looks good . But it is eating her leg bone away and can break all we can do is pray at this point .
      They gave her meds . We ask how long she had but they could not say . At this point I guess all I can do is love her as we make each other so happy I have had her for 6 years we have been one from when she was only 10 weeks old . she is my world .

      • Judy we’re sorry to hear about Bella. Please come join the Discussion Forums where you’ll find lots of folks who have been in your shoes OK? Hope to see you there, and that Bella has many great days ahead.

      • I’m sorry you guys i am still n horrible pain I lost my baby Betty to this evil disease she was 13.7 yrs I miiss her dearly and cry everyday it has been 3 months since her passing and i’m still trying to pick the pieces up. She was given the same prognosis and was high on her femur that would have required a pelvic resection along with amputation. Unfortunately she f a turned her tumor leg 11 days later and I had to say goodnight d bye it was the hardest thing i ever did.

      • Dan, our heart goes out to you, we are so sorry. Please consider sharing Betty’s life with us in the Coping with Loss Forum Topic. Not only is it therapeutic for you but we would also like to know more about your sweetie. Our deepest condolences go out to you.

  2. What blog do I need to join? My dog is my life and I just found out he has bone cancer.

  3. We are going through the post operative dealings now. Our Lucy, a 4 year old German Shepherd, was diagnosed with canine bone cancer and we had the tumorous left rear leg amputated. The gamut of emotions we as humans feel for our beloved dogs is far worse then what our four legged family members feel. For all of us going through this, stay strong..I pray for all going through this .

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Kurt. Best wishes to you and Lucy. We send many wishes for a speedy recovery and many more good times ahead. Please consider joining us in the Forums so we can follow along with your journey, we’re here to help.

  4. Yes. My Best friend broke her leg 4 days ago and thinking we were going to the animal emergency room to get a cast we actually receive news from the vet that in the x-rays they suspected cancer in her left rear leg.
    We were in shock to hear this news not having any signs of any illness, pain or problems with our 12 year old Huskey.
    We were in denial and called over 4 different doctors back home to confirm what we were hearing. Living in Hawaii, We sometime tend to be 10 years behind the rest of the U.S.
    All these terms and acronyms now being thrown at us was very overwhelming. Being here in Hawaii, also had a draw back of not being able to get results immediately. All our blood work had to be sent to California for examination which took an added 3 days before they would even decide what to do with our dogs fractured leg. Our poor husky was in pain over 4 day before finally getting the results we needed to make a best decision for survival for our Husky. The tests came back showing bone cancer and the doctors would not fix the leg and only wanted to amputate. Once again not prepared to make this decision we had no idea if this was really the right decision. Once again we went and ask for 3 other opinions of our test and all 3 gave us the same response of amputation.
    We just brought Aspen home today and the incision is large and she is resting now at home. We are going to to a physical therapy for 3 legged dogs in two weeks. Now that the surgery is over and my best friend is home I really feel it is the best for a pain free life.
    I am going to opening a blog for other families and owners to help each other while we continue thru our journey with our loving 3 legged best friends.

    • Melinda, Aspen and family, we’re so glad you found us. We’ve had other members in Hawaii over the years. Please come to our Discussion Forums and chime in, we’re here for you and lots of folks can answer your questions there. Can’t wait to see your blog too!

      And also, Aspen’s first rehab appointment could be free if the clinic quaifies. Please see our Tripawds Foundation blog post about free rehab:

      Glad to hear Aspen is home. Let us know what we can do to help make your journey easier.

  5. This is my first comment and I don’t know which forum to comment in.
    Tomorrow morning Jamie will have his left rear leg amputated due to cancer.
    This site has given me hope. Thank you.
    I am gearing up to buy an AST Get-A-Grip Harness. I just purchased the Bella hot & cold Pain Relief pad.
    I understand that the doctors still don’t know which type of cancer Jamie has, whether it’s chondrasarcoma or osteosarcoma. After the amputation they are going to send away a large slice. Plus whole body x-rays and 3d lung & abdomen.
    Does this sound familiar to anyone?

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