in Checking In

Rocket has cancer

Our family dog, Rocket, has been a part of the Turner crew for ten years now. We’ve taken him on family vacations around the region, sailing at Lake Gaston, and on countless walks around the neighborhood.

We’d noticed recently that he was slowing down but some of that is to be expected for a dog that’s around 13 years old. He used to bound up and down stairs but now took his time. His hind legs appeared much weaker than his front legs. He sometimes stumbled, dragging his rear paw. We chalked that up to old age.

But then several weeks ago we noticed a occasional small drop of blood in his drool. A trip to the vet indicated a mass was growing on the back of his tongue, too far back (and attached to an uncooperative dog) for the vet to properly examine it. We were sent home with antibiotics in the off chance that our boneheaded dog had simply eaten something that scratched his tongue and created an infection.

As the weeks passed, the antibiotics did nothing to stem the blood. This blood became more common and frequent, soon erupting into full-scale bleeding. A trip back to the vet became a bloody mess when a vet tech offered Rocket a treat. After he gleefully accepted it, Rocket’s mouth became a bloody mess, thoroughly coating the exam room. We scheduled him for a real exam.

The next five days were dark days indeed. Worn out from the constant bleeding, Rocket became still and depressed. He showed no interest in his walks and at a meal he actually left food in his dish for the first time ever.  Kelly and I steeled ourselves and our kids for the possibility that Rocket would not be with us much longer.

The following week, Rocket was examined under sedative and the vet confirmed our fear: the growth was too far along to successfully remove. A chest X-ray showed no cancer in his lungs, however. Fortunately, in the day or two before his exam he had perked up considerably.

Thus it seems we may be facing a bittersweet future where the cancer won’t take Rocket’s life any time soon but those weeks or months will be bloody and likely painful for him. Our downstairs floor is covered in old towels to accommodate his bleeding as best we can, while he spends his nights secured in his crate.

A few veterinarian websites I’ve found seem to say that dogs with pigmented skin tend to be more susceptible to cancer (emphasis mine):

The growths found in a dog’s mouth may be identical in outward appearance. However, the severity of the harm they can do will depend on the type of tumor. Further investigation is paramount in order to assure a return to full health for your dog. Causes for a growth may be:

  • Older, male dogs are diagnosed with oral cancer more so than younger canines, or their female counterparts
  • Dogs with dark pigmented mucosa are more often diagnosed with cancerous growths
  • Periodontal disease can lead to a noncancerous lump
  • A damaged salivary gland may prompt the development of a growth

Since before he joined our family, Rocket has had a multi-colored tongue, with a large dark streak on his otherwise pink tongue. I’ve always though this was a cute quirk of our dog, perhaps a bit of Chow mixed into his Lab heritage, but it may have been evidence all along that he was susceptible to cancer.

Now we watch and wait, keeping him comfortable, relatively exercised, and as pain-free as possible while we manage the mess his damaged tongue is making and we await his ultimate fate. At least his spirits are high. As long as he continues to seem happy we will follow his lead and do what we need to do.

No matter what your species, growing old sucks.