In most cases leukemia can be treated or managed, but rarely can it be cured. Treatment goals are to eradicate the cancerous leukocytes if possible, restore normal bone marrow production of red and white blood cells and their precursors, provide good supportive care to the dog and relieve the patient’s discomfort. Remission, which is the reduction or temporary cessation of the observable signs of an illness, is the ultimate therapeutic goal of treating leukemia. Veterinary oncologists, who have specialized training in diagnosing and treating canine cancers, should be consulted to get the best diagnostic and treatment advice in any given case.
Dogs with acute leukemia usually require aggressive inpatient supportive care. This typically involves intravenous fluid therapy, administration of broad-spectrum antibiotics and possibly blood transfusions if the dog is suffering from severe anemia. Forced nutritional support may also be necessary, especially if the dog has not eaten for several days. Dogs with chronic leukemia may or may not require such intensive supportive care, although antibiotics are often part of their treatment protocol, as well.
The classic treatment for canine leukemia is chemotherapy. Chemotherapy involves treating the disease with anti-cancer drugs that target rapidly dividing or growing cells. Unfortunately, the cells lining the gastrointestinal tract are normally rapidly dividing and growing, which is why chemotherapeutic treatment is often associated with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and other forms of gastrointestinal distress. While chemotherapy will not “cure” leukemia, it can help put the disease into remission by killing many if not most of the circulating malignant white blood cells. The affected dog may need to be hospitalized during the treatment process, because chemotherapeutic medications are potent, powerful and can have a number of potentially dangerous side effects. Dogs that respond well to chemotherapy may need to be treated periodically for the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, the prognosis for dogs with acute leukemia is poor. However, current statistics are not especially reliable, because acute leukemias are relatively rare and many owners elect to euthenize their dogs at or shortly after the time of diagnosis rather than pursue a course of chemotherapy. The disease progresses rapidly, and most dogs suffering from acute leukemia are quite ill by the time their condition is diagnosed. If they are not treated or only receive supportive care, average survival times may be less than 4 weeks. Chemotherapy may or may not increase that period to several months or more. Either way, the outlook is not good.
Dogs with slow-onset, chronic leukemia have a better long-term prognosis. With appropriate supportive care and a good response to chemotherapy, survival times of 1 to 6 years have been reported, depending upon the white blood cell line involved. Chronic leukemias tend to progress slowly, which is largely why affected dogs have a better chance of enjoying longer survival times than do those with acute-onset leukemia.