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Leukemia in Dogs

What Is Leukemia in Dogs?

Leukemia in dogs is a form of cancer that impacts their blood and bone marrow, which constitutes the soft inner section of bones. The bone marrow plays a crucial role in generating white blood cells, essential for the body’s defense against infections and diseases.

When a dog develops leukemia, the bone marrow starts producing abnormal white blood cells that fail to mature or function properly. Over time, these abnormal cells proliferate and outnumber the healthy blood cells, leading to their accumulation in the bloodstream, lymph nodes, liver, and spleen. Ultimately, this may hinder the bone marrow’s ability to generate healthy blood cells altogether.


Leukemia in dogs manifests in two primary forms: chronic and acute.

Chronic leukemia: This type progresses slowly and steadily over time. In chronic leukemia, the abnormal white blood cells are nearly fully developed and can carry out some of their normal functions, though not as effectively.

Acute leukemia: Progressing much more rapidly than its chronic counterpart, acute leukemia triggers a rapid production of immature blood cells that lack proper functionality. It typically presents severe symptoms.

Both chronic and acute leukemia can be categorized as either myelogenous leukemia, originating from the bone marrow’s myeloid cells, or lymphocytic leukemia, which affects the lymphoid cells. The prevalence of lymphocytic leukemia exceeds that of myelogenous leukemia in dogs.


  • Fatigue
  • Reduced appetite
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Decline in weight
  • Nausea
  • Episodes of vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Heightened urination
  • Frequent infections
  • Enhanced thirst
  • Swollen abdomen, often due to enlarged liver and/or spleen
  • Enlarged lymph nodes

It’s important to note that dogs afflicted with chronic leukemia may not exhibit any symptoms as the disease advances gradually.


Leukemia in dogs does not have a known direct cause. Instead, the likelihood of a dog developing leukemia is influenced by a combination of factors.

Chemical exposure: Certain toxins, such as the industrial chemical benzene, have been associated with leukemia in humans. This correlation might extend to dogs as well.

Genetics: The development of all blood cells in the body starts with stem cells. Occasionally, these stem cells carry damaged instructions, leading to the formation of abnormal blood cells that function inadequately.

Breed: Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds are most commonly diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. While the exact reason remains unclear, it is likely linked to genetic factors.

Age: Acute leukemia is more prevalent among younger dogs compared to middle-aged and older ones.

Gender: The risk of leukemia development in dogs doesn’t seem to be influenced by gender. Both male and female dogs have an equal likelihood of being diagnosed with the disease.


Initially, a blood test is conducted to assess the relative count of white blood cells in your dog’s system. An elevated count serves as an indication of potential health issues.

While leukemia is suspected, veterinarians conduct further tests to eliminate other diseases that could lead to a high white blood cell count. These assessments may involve a physical examination, analysis of the red blood cell count, and sampling from the spleen, liver, or bone marrow.

For leukemia determination, samples are usually extracted from the bone marrow through a procedure known as bone marrow aspirate. This process entails using a specialized needle to access the bone and gather fluid. Additionally, a core biopsy may be performed to obtain a solid piece of bone marrow. Dogs typically receive sedation or light anesthesia to minimize discomfort during the procedure, ensuring a successful sample collection.

The collected samples undergo microscopic examination to identify the presence of cancerous cells, facilitating the diagnosis. Following diagnosis, factors such as symptoms, age, and maturity of cancerous blood cells aid in distinguishing between chronic and acute leukemia.

Chronic leukemia often affects older dogs who may not display symptoms, with cancerous white blood cells exhibiting higher development levels. Diagnosis commonly occurs during routine blood analysis.

On the other hand, acute leukemia primarily afflicts dogs under six years of age, showcasing evident signs of illness, and featuring less developed cancerous cells. Diagnosis usually occurs during treatment-seeking for severe symptoms.


In most cases, leukemia in dogs cannot be fully cured through treatment. Instead, the focus lies in symptom management, lifespan extension, and enhancement of the dog’s quality of life. Dogs with chronic leukemia typically respond positively to treatment.

Supportive care for your dog may involve administering antibiotics, replenishing lost fluids, providing essential blood components, and ensuring a balanced, nutritious diet.

To slow down the progression of the disease, treatment options may include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of both. However, dogs with acute leukemia have limited treatment options and often do not respond well to chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy is usually administered orally in pill form, although more severe cases may necessitate intravenous delivery. The effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs can vary based on your dog’s individual circumstances.

Immune-suppressing medications may be prescribed to alleviate negative side effects associated with cancer and its treatment. Blood transfusions may also be required to address a deficiency in healthy red blood cells. Dogs in the early stages of chronic leukemia may not receive immediate treatment. Close monitoring and regular veterinary check-ups will determine the appropriate timing for initiating treatment as the disease progresses.

Living and Management

Attaining remission, where cancer signs and symptoms diminish or vanish completely, is exceedingly rare in cases of leukemia. Thus, focusing on disease and symptom management becomes paramount for prolonging your dog’s lifespan and enhancing their quality of life following diagnosis.

Long-term medication is typically prescribed, often including immunosuppressants like prednisone and chlorambucil. Pet owners should prioritize ensuring their dog consumes a balanced, nutritious diet. If the dog struggles to retain essential nutrients due to cancer and its treatment, supplements like Zesty Paws® 8-in-1 Bites may prove beneficial.

Incorporating scientifically supported supplements known for their cancer-fighting properties, such as omega-3 fatty acids, can further enhance the dog’s diet. Your veterinarian may recommend products like Nordic Natural Omega-3 Pet Softgels.

Additionally, pet owners may need to adapt their lifestyle to accommodate their dog’s reduced energy levels, adhere to medication schedules, and monitor overall physical condition. Financial planning for treatment expenses may necessitate lifestyle adjustments.

Always seek guidance from your dog’s veterinarian before altering the treatment plan to ensure you’re providing the best possible support for your pet.

Leukemia in Dogs FAQs

What is the life expectancy of a dog with leukemia?

For a dog diagnosed with acute leukemia, the life expectancy ranges from weeks to months, despite receiving supportive care and treatment. In contrast, a dog diagnosed with chronic leukemia typically has a life expectancy of several months to years.

What are the final stages of leukemia in a dog?

The end stages of leukemia in a dog are characterized by lethargy, difficulty breathing, reduced mobility, significant weight loss, challenges in eating and drinking, and incontinence.

How quickly can leukemia develop in dogs?

Chronic leukemia typically evolves over several months to years before it becomes noticeable. On the other hand, acute leukemia advances swiftly, often within a span of weeks to months, and presents severe symptoms.

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