Priceless, most of us would say. But what happens when you have an old dog and an unknown illness, like an abdominal mass? Your vet runs through several scenarios:
- Run multiple tests to try to identify the problem. That would cost of over a grand, and not involve treatment. If we’re lucky, the problem can be determined from only one or two tests. Plus the cost of treatment, whatever that may be.
- She could do exploratory surgery and remove the mass, but if there were multiple tumors, then she would euthanize your dog.
- Or she could just make him comfortable, which may last only a few weeks.
How far do you go down the rabbit hole?
Chipper was my mom’s cocker spaniel and I inherited him and his ‘sister’ Buffy in 2013. Now he’s 12 ½ and has an enlarged spleen—not slightly enlarged, two to three times its normal size.
I know my mom would have said, “Just put him down. He’s old anyway.”
But I can’t do that.
I’m wrestling with the issue, even though my long-term plan is to get a springer spaniel puppy (my preferred breed). When I first inherited Buffy and Chipper, I also had Cassie, my springer spaniel. But trying to walk or travel with three dogs was very challenging, so when my springer passed, I decided to wait until both cockers died, or possibly only one, depending on the health of the remaining dog. I don’t think it’s fair to stress an old dog with a crazy puppy.
But Chipper was my mom’s dog—so by association, a part of my mom.
Chipper started having diarrhea several days before his scheduled semiannual senior exam. Both cockers get this every few months to the extent where they need strong probiotics and maybe an antibiotic to clear it up. My dogs eat a mix of high quality kibble, homemade dog food and leftovers, and it’s usually the leftovers that cause the problem—but they love my husband’s cooking—especially pot licking—their favorite time of day. I also walk them around the neighborhood where they frequently gobble things up before I can get them to drop it.
On hindsight, Chipper had a couple of other symptoms, like becoming a fussy eater the last few weeks. He just didn’t seem to like breakfast anymore, but would eat dinner and snacks. Normally he would gobble up everything, as is typical for cocker spaniels.
He also dragged on walks around the block and was hesitant with stairs. But these are typical for a dog that has arthritis. I figured I would mention these things during his senior exam.
The money question—the start of the rabbit hole.
I was shocked when my vet said Chipper had an enlarged spleen and she asked how I would like to proceed.
The spleen filters blood and removes abnormal blood cells from the body. It is also part of the immune system. Although it is an important part of the body, dogs, and people, can live without a spleen, although they are at a higher risk for infections.
An enlarged spleen is often a symptom of an underlying problem, which could range from an infection to cancer. Injuries can also cause an enlarged spleen, but Chipper hasn’t had any major injuries.
To date, Chipper’s course of action has included:
Step 1: First, my vet put Chipper on antibiotics, the simplest and easiest thing to do. Then she ran a blood test, which was part of his regular senior exam. An infection would have shown an elevated white cell count, which he didn’t have. He was slightly anemic, which could indicate internal bleeding. Antibiotics and blood tests $170.
Step 2: My vet thought he might have cancer, and that we should determine if it has metastasized or if he was a good candidate for a splenectomy. I didn’t know how far I wanted to go yet, so I approved the initial tests, x-rays to see if Chipper had tumors in his chest at a cost of $110. The x-rays didn’t show any obvious signs of cancer.
Step 3: Then she recommended an ultrasound, which required a specialist. I hesitated for a day as my husband, my sister, and I discussed whether it was worth putting Chipper through the stress of multiple vet visits and which direction we wanted to proceed. We concluded that we should not proceed with the $400+ ultrasound, which might not show anything.
When my vet called the next day, she urged me to get the ultrasound so we would know how to proceed with Chipper’s illness. She convinced me that it was necessary. So the next day I traveled 1 ½ hours each way to a specialty vet for the ultrasound and consultation at a cost of $500. The results were inconclusive except that Chipper doesn’t have any obvious tumors on his spleen or the surrounding organs. Great that he doesn’t have any obvious signs of cancer, but we still don’t know what is causing his enlarged spleen and how to treat it.
Step 4: My vet recommended a urinalysis and additional x-rays (which the specialist also recommended). She also re-checked his blood counts since Chipper no longer had diarrhea. Another $210, for more inconclusive results, except that his red blood cells have dropped a bit further, but his protein levels are up.
Step 5: There is still the possibility of cancer, but only inside his spleen, so my vet wants to confer with the specialist to see if a fine needle aspiration of his spleen should be performed with ultrasound guidance. This would involve another trek to the specialist and a cost of about $400.
So, I’m a grand into it before we decide if we want to go forward with step five. But it is looking like Chipper might have a difficult time with a splenectomy if he is already anemic with a lower red cell count. A splenectomy would range from a $1,000 – $1,500 if it is not complicated.
When do I call it quits?
I know I don’t want to do chemotherapy if it will add only a few months to his life. I also don’t want to have him suffer through a splenectomy if he has to have weeks of recovery, only to die within a few months.
Some reports say he could live another year after his spleen is removed if he doesn’t have cancer.
But he is 12 ½ years old—the average lifespan for a cocker spaniel.
I’d be willing to go through the surgery if he had a year—but should I put him through the trauma?
Or should I let him be?
Maybe I’ll let Chipper decide. Once he shows no interest in food for more than a couple of days, I’ll know it’s time.