I want you to know what happened because hemangiosarcoma is common, and many people have shared similar experiences in the comments below. Our rescue pit bull Scooby entertained extended family with his usual antics on Mother’s Day 2019. He jumped into my husband’s lap at the table knowing that’s where he was most likely to source scraps of the expensive poached salmon I ordered from a restaurant down the street.
As usual, we pulled his bed over to the table so that he could snore away while we played some card games after our meal. He and I later curled up in bed to enjoy the penultimate episode of “Game of Thrones.” It was business as usual.
Monday came and went without much fanfare. On Tuesday morning, everyone (including Scooby) enjoyed their usual harried breakfast routine before school departure. I went out to yoga, and my husband headed out for a beach jog but noticed on his way out that Scooby was a little uneasy, which wasn’t entirely unusual. He was a nervous dog, had just turned 10, and loud construction noise radiated from a neighbor’s house. Noise, trucks, and strange men talking scared him, so he wasn’t behaving out of line.
When I returned home, Scooby wasn’t at the door to greet me. He was lying on the living room rug and wouldn’t even get up for food, a highly unusual event. The dog loved food. I had to coax him up.
A few hours later, we were sitting in the vet’s office. Fecal and blood tests were run and returned with normal results. His physical exam didn’t reveal anything unusual, either. Maybe it’s his thyroid. Perhaps it’s the result of a hypoallergenic diet that included grain-free food, a topic for another day, but one dog owners should be aware of. Dinner was refused, but he slept well and woke up on Wednesday morning with tons and tons of energy.
Relief swept over the entire family. The only thing out of the ordinary was that he was extra hungry from having skipped dinner. I’m so glad we indulged him with a little bit more bacon and other treats throughout the entire day.
We took our usual walk, and he eagerly jumped into our bed in the middle of the night to sleep with us. I wrapped him in a blanket, and he snored away until he, per usual, bolted out of bed after hearing my daughter wake up for school. Breakfast came and went, and so did our housekeepers (which caused him stress).
My radar went up again when he refused his usual midday Greenie snack, which he gets while we make lunch. Instead of being tired like he was on Tuesday, this time, I could tell he was uncomfortable. Maybe he just needed sleep, which seemed to work wonders on Tuesday. Instead, he tossed, turned, and shivered in his bed next to my desk. He still barked to announce the mail carrier’s arrival and moved with me to other rooms in the house.
I knew something was wrong, but at the time, it was impossible to tell if it was indigestion or something more significant. After studying him for a few hours (which I regret), I called the vet again, and we were summoned in for a chest X-ray to rule out cardiomyopathy. I wasn’t sure if we needed to go to the vet, given his recovery the previous day, but went anyway.
He never came home (or even whimpered once throughout the entire ordeal).
An ultrasound revealed fluid in his abdomen, and a sample taken revealed that it was blood. She told me that dogs with this condition go to surgery or heaven. Given that it was rush hour to the nearest pet emergency room, they gave him an IV of fluids (and lots of hugs — he always held everyone’s hands in the vet’s office, which was funny) to keep him comfortable during the car ride, left the catheter in, and sent us on our way.
We’re not strangers to the veterinary hospital where our local emergency room is, given that we were there at least every six months to have his hemangiomas (more on these later) lasered off. So, he sniffed the same plants and dog area on the way in and politely sat down as a couple cut the line in front of us. I had to push my way in. We didn’t look like it, but we were as emergency as it gets, which I now understand more than I did then.
An ER tech immediately came to get him. Rather than the usual paperwork I fill out when there, I verbally agreed to specific procedures and a do not resuscitate order (DNR). (This was hard. I had always indicated yes to resuscitate because his laser surgeries had always been minor, and the surgeon’s staff agreed with this choice because if things went south, we’d make a decision later.) Our vet had already called ahead and sent the X-rays and test results.
He was rushed away, though my husband points out that he walked himself throughout the entire process. Dazed, I sat in the waiting area. Thankfully, the most social and well-behaved cat on a leash distracted everyone in there. People in the waiting room at this time of day are usually not there for happy reasons.
It didn’t take long for them to call me into a room where I waited for the ER doctor. She confirmed that her ultrasound showed fluid in his abdomen. Since our vet extracted blood from it, and he had a history of hemangiomas on his skin, I had two choices.
- Ultrasound his entire body. I would only do this if I was consenting to surgery. Surgery with a condition like this typically extends life by a month, if it is even successful. And, he was going to need a blood transfusion first, which takes time that he wasn’t going to likely have. The cancerous blood already washed his major organs.
- Euthanize him right away because he was bleeding to death.
That’s a lot to process out of the blue.
I called my husband, and we agreed to number two. The ER doctor flat-out told me this was the most humane thing to do. I trust this hospital and its staff and do not regret this decision.
I spared no expense on Scooby throughout his entire life (including TPLO surgery which he healed brilliantly from). I would have paid ridiculous sums of money to save him if I could have. Number two was about his quality of life. And it needed to be done as soon as possible.
My next decision, though, haunts me. I wasn’t sure how quickly number two would occur. Is it normal for a 12-year-old child to see her best friend euthanized? (The answer, I later learned, is yes.) There was more paperwork (a blur), and then I was led into the room where it happens. It took a little bit of time for Scooby to arrive, and I was told to take as much time as I needed with him. I only took a few minutes because he looked terrible and had obviously slid downhill to the point where there was no question number two was the right thing to do. I was the only other family member there, but he and I were bonded. I was his person.
By the time we were in that room together, though, my daughter and husband probably could have fought traffic to be with us. I didn’t make that calculation, nor did I ask what the time frame would be. If you’re ever in the same position, ask how long you have. I wish they could have brought his favorite blanket and held his hands, too. Everything happened so quickly, but no one wanted to prolong his suffering.
I spooned him like he was used to and told him what an amazing dog he is. A deep sedative put him to sleep, and then a second shot stopped his heart. I felt it stop beating on my arm immediately. It was quick.
A few days, many tears, and many Google searches later, I now understand what happened to my perfect boy.
I’m not a veterinarian. I’m writing this as a pet owner who has gone through a dog’s sudden death by aggressive cancer called hemangiosarcoma, a cancer of the blood vessel walls. I hope that if you see the same signs that I did, you will not hesitate before calling the vet, which will hopefully allow you to give your dog the best quality of life and the least amount of pain until the very end.
This silent killer usually shows no clinical signs until the end is inevitable. I’ve now read multiple stories from other dog owners in shock at how their dog can drop dead a few hours after being wholly energetic and fine.
Dogs very rarely die from heart attacks, but they do suddenly die from hemangiosarcoma. The Golden Retriever Club of America National Health Survey revealed that the chances of golden retrievers developing hemangiosarcoma in a lifetime are 1 in 5. Pit bulls, Labrador retrievers, and German Shepherds are also prone to the disease.
The most common place for malignant tumors to grow is on the spleen, but they can grow anywhere there are blood vessels and spread to other major organs. Since you can’t see them, you and perhaps your dog won’t know cancer exists until things have progressed to the point of no return. If tumors are isolated to the spleen and haven’t burst, the spleen can be removed, which may buy your dog some time but not usually more than a month. And, chemotherapy might be recommended to extend life a few months beyond that, hopefully. It’s a no-win situation.
I should have known he was at risk for this cancer, given his history of cutaneous hemangiomas. Hemangiomas are the benign form of hemangiosarcoma. I had not linked the two, and it’s probably a good thing because I would have obsessed over his every ailment even more than I already did.
Cutaneous hemangiomas are likely (but they’re not sure) caused by the sun. They look like blood blisters. He has one on his cheek in this photo.
Cutaneous hemangiomas grew on him quickly and in all sizes, even though we kept him out of the sun and covered him in dog-safe sunscreen when he was in the sun for walks and short outings. They ranged from light red to nearly black. Four months before he died, a rather large one appeared on his leg that had grown to the size of a grape. Our surgeon wasn’t worried, and we always sent the suspicious-looking ones to the lab. The rest were lasered off.
His history of cutaneous hemangiomas combined with burst tumor(s) internally is why the ER vet didn’t hesitate to recommend euthanasia.
Warning Signs to Look For
Scooby’s symptoms were sudden lethargy and lack of appetite. They think the reason why he experienced this on Tuesday and seemingly recovered for one day on Wednesday is that the bleeding was light, somehow clotted, and he made more blood cells to compensate for the loss of blood. On Thursday, the day he died, the bleeding restarted more forcefully.
I debated whether or not to take him to the vet on Thursday afternoon and would have taken him in a few hours earlier had I known to check his mouth. Pale gums and tongue indicate anemia. Combined with lethargy and lack of appetite, it signals that something is wrong.
His gums were fine on Tuesday, as were his labs. On Thursday, his gums were very pale. I wish I had known to look at his gums because then I’d have known it wasn’t indigestion. Before going to the vet on Thursday, we had no idea he was ill.
Other symptoms that are common with hemangiosarcoma that Scooby didn’t have include a distended abdomen, seizures, collapsing, arrhythmia, and abnormal breathing.
Long Days Afterward
Hemangiosarcoma causes dog owners extraordinary pain because we’re forced to make immediate decisions we’re unprepared for. We question what we did wrong (which is probably nothing) and wonder how we missed the signs (because there weren’t any). The loss is sudden and traumatic. It took a long time for me to recover.
The other point of this post is to let people going through this same miserable trauma know that they are not alone. There are a lot of us. You’ll soon see what I mean when you start talking about it to others. I’m updating this post in 2023 because I want you to know that you’re going to be okay. And, because there are so many similar stories still being told in the comments of this post years later.
One of the many things I needed to reconcile with is that Scooby was not the type of dog who would have handled a long term disease well (not that anyone does). He liked to be within a few inches of or attached to a human at every minute, and this does take a lot of moving around, given that we have a tween in the house. If I could have carried him in a Baby Bjorn all day, he’d have been cool with that.
We felt he deserved whatever we could give him, as we’re confident he was abused before he came to us. We are desperately trying to take comfort in the fact that it was a “good” way for him to go because he likely didn’t experience much discomfort until his final day.
He was so loved, and proof that rescued pit bulls can make brilliant family dogs. It was just his time.
Update: Four Years Later
I originally wrote this post in June 2019. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Scooby and how he died, but the pain is much more manageable now. We did rescue another pit bull, Ruby, which was unimaginable at the time we lost him. She’s different and fabulous and goofy — and she doesn’t replace him.
I read all of your comments and emails and want you to know that although the feeling of loss doesn’t completely go away you will — eventually — feel better and realize that what happened wasn’t your fault. There are more people than you realize who understand what you’re going through.
And when you are ready, maybe you’ll be able to open your heart and home to another dog. It helped us tremendously.