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La Jolla Mom

We Suddenly Lost Our Dog to Hemangiosarcoma

I want you to know what happened because it's common

BY La Jolla Mom

Our rescue pit bull Scooby entertained extended family with his usual antics on Mother’s Day. 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.

We pulled his bed over to the table so that he could snore away, per usual, 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 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 was coming from a neighbor’s house. Noise, trucks, and strange men talking scare 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 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 including 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 causes 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 arrival of the mail carrier 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 really needed to go to the vet, given his prior day recovery, 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’re 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 at the time. 

An ER tech immediately came to get him. Rather than the usual paperwork I fill out when there, I verbally agreed to certain 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 and he had a history of hemangiomas on his skin, I had two choices.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 have regrets about this decision. I spared no expense on Scooby throughout his entire life (including TPLO surgery that 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 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 do 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.

Pit bull with a squeaky chicken

Hemangiosarcoma

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, that you will not hesitate before calling the vet which will hopefully allow you to give your dog the best quality of life and 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 from 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, 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 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 a probably 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.

Pit bull with hemangioma

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. It was 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 completely 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 in a more forceful manner.

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 which combined with lethargy and lack of appetite 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 would have known to look at them because I’d have known it wasn’t indigestion. Before going to the vet on Thursday, we had no idea that he was ill.

Other symptoms that are common with hemangiosarcoma, that Scooby didn’t have, include a distended abdomen, seizures, collapsing, arrhythmia, 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 will take 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.

One of the many things I need 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 the fact 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.

My daughter cuddling our pit bull rescue

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13 thoughts on “We Suddenly Lost Our Dog to Hemangiosarcoma

    1. This is exactly what happened to my dog Captain. 2 days before he died he ran 4 miles with my husband while he was biking. It was so sudden. A year later it’s still shocking. He was a german shepherd mix. The sweetest boy. I’m sorry for your loss and thanks for writing about it. I came across your blog when searching hotels but saw this and thought “that’s what happened to MY boy”.

  1. I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for posting about this. Sadly, we too, lost our sweet Honey Bear to Hemangiosarcoma. Honey was a Pit/Shepherd rescue, and a truly amazing dog. Similar to your situation, it was sudden and seemed to come out of now where. We took her to the vet and were given the same options, she was 11 yrs old, and already bleeding to death when they took her vitals. We took her home and had a service come out the same day, this allowed us the privacy to grieve and have our last moments with her in the comfort of our home.

    It was incredibly devastating, but we actually had a couple of warning signs that we were not aware of at the time. She had a couple of random days where she wouldn’t move much or eat, but always bounced back to normal the next day. We later found out that this was most likely due to internal bleeding, and she bounced back once her body absorbed the blood. Apparently, the tumor was slowly bleeding but we were not aware of it until it ruptured.

    Being a pet owner, dog lover, and puppy foster for a local rescue organization, I believe awareness helps us take better care of these precious lives and enjoy them while they are with us. Thanks again for talking about this!

  2. The same thing just happened to our boxer three days ago. We are hurting and heartbroken. We definitely understand your pain!

  3. We lost our 5 year old Boxer/Pit mix a month ago to a ruptured splenic tumor, which we believe to be a Hemangiosarcoma. I have a picture of him begging for my daughters food from that morning. I noticed he looked kind of out of it that afternoon, but my daughter was cranky and had just fallen asleep, so I got my food and went back downstairs to where she was. I will regret that forever. Why didn’t l just bend down to check on him? We took my daughter to urgent care because we thought she had an ear infection, she didn’t. We then went to target after. I regret the whole evening. We were out while my poor bub was bleeding to death. I was his person, he was my soulmate, my heart dog. When we got home he was so lethargic, we rushed him to the emergency clinic. I was a vet tech for years, how did I miss this? I knew he was going to die as soon as I saw his gums, I knew what had happened.
    I’m devastated, guilt ridden, and lost. Losing him this way has traumatized me. I cry myself to sleep every night.

  4. So sorry to hear about Scooby what a gorgeous dog , we are in shock after taking our beautiful dog George to the emergency vets last night only to be given the horrendous news that it was Hemangiosarcoma of the heart and devastated that was to be the end of or George’s life story we are all very upset and i can’t stop crying i just wasn’t ready to say goodbye 😢x

  5. So Sad to read about Scooby and all these other very sad stories ours is much the same our beautiful! 10 yr old Bullmastif staff cross George who was lagging after his usual nightly walk and off his food also restless during the night a vet visit on Friday 19 th and looking up his symptons we thought maybe Pneumonia but antibiotics and fluid retention tablets didn’t work his gums were pink too so he didn’t seem to be anaemic and another appointment needed for an ultra sound as none was available . Friday night he was in our bedroom and slept right through wrapped in his blanket and his favourite pillow but Saturday came and he was struggling to breath and just couldn’t sit down or lie down he was struggling badly our youngest of 5 Chase was home from his graduate Geo job in the mines and they were best friends like his brother Chase would say well we all decided Emergency vets visit -it was to be George’s last ride in the car an ultrasound and a a syringe to draw blood from around his heart showed he had Hemangiosarcoma of the heart he was given oxygen to help him and came in looking weak but with a wagging tail pleased to see us this made me crumble we were given our choices which was none as I asked for as much info on his prognosis and we knew what was the right decision for George by this time his gums had lost their colour and his legs were struggling we did have his blanket and favourite lamb toy with us and we said our goodbyes but I was a mess our brave boy hadn’t even whimpered just endured it all driving home without him was horrendous I have had trouble dealing with losing our beautiful boy all of us have I think perhaps because up until this he has been so healthy and looked so young for his age my chest hurts and I’m constantly crying we will miss him so much our house feels empty and his face isn’t looking through the glass door waiting to greet us anymore when we arrive home . Our son Chase didn’t make his 7 hour drive back to his job he stayed home an extra day and we comforted each other but nothing will help just time he was such a special dog and will be in our hearts forever along with our lovely memories . Xx

  6. Sorry for your loss. I just found out 48 hour ago my “Perfect Boy” Has a large tumor on his Spleen. It does not appear to have metastasized (at least they could see on ultrasound). But at Ten and a half with the quality of and length of life left I’m finding it difficult to justify putting him through such an ordeal. I don’t want him to suffer or, god forbid, blead out alone at home with no on around. but he’s stable and being spoiled for now. Other than his grey face and the ticking time bomb in his belly he’s really got the body of and attitude of a much younger dog. He had all the good food and treats, regular exercise slept on the bed and all the loves, rubs and squishes a good boy could want. I’m sad and angry as he’s been such to best boy his while life and this is so undeserving. I’m hoping I can be brave for him but I suck at this kind of stuff.

  7. Just to let you know, you’ll never really get over this. The same thing happened this January to our beloved, crazy, energetic whippet-shepherd mix. Apparently, Java was fine most of that day, playing and acting normally. But by the time I got home from work, she had already collapsed once in my daughter’s room. And while trying to get in touch with our local vet, Java wobbled on her legs and collapsed again. Her stomach was so distended it felt hard and when I checked her gums they were an eerie white. Realizing immediately it was serious, my wife and I grabbed Java and we jumped in the car. At the vet’s office, she tried her best to be happy, wagging her tail and wanting attention from all the staff. We didn’t wait very long, but it felt like forever due to the anxious situation. The vet did a X-ray and showed us that a large amount of fluid was obscuring the view of her abdomen. The vet said that it was likely blood and she immediately referred us to an emergency vet for an ultrasound. On the drive to the emergency vet, I could tell Java was cuddlier than usual, sticking tightly between my legs in the passenger seat. Again, we didn’t wait long, but it felt like forever, especially when they took Java from us to examine her. Minutes later, they brought us into a room and we met the emergency vet. He explained that he had drawn a syringe from her abdomen and that it was full of blood. He said that it was very likely, based on her breed, that she had hemangiosarcoma and that she would need emergency transfusions and surgery to remove her spleen. Interestingly, they wouldn’t do the ultrasound that we came there for because they already knew Java’s situation was serious. Then things became worse. Java’s prognosis with surgery was only a month and with the additional cost of chemotherapy six months. Having no pet insurance, the estimates ranged from $9,000 to $14,000 to begin her emergency care without any positive outlook. It was a horrible gut punch to find oneself in such a situation with no good options. Why was this happening? Why was it so expensive? What were we going to do? Our dog was facing her imminent demise with or without intervention. We were completely overwhelmed, but it certainly didn’t seem wise to me to extend her life for months only to have to return to a vet again for an eventual euthanasia. It was especially devastating when we had to call our daughter, who was home studying for her finals, to tell her the news. She wouldn’t get a chance to hold and love her dog again and she couldn’t, due to poor cell coverage, have one last, sad interaction via Facetime. In retrospect, we maybe hesistated longer than we should have making that quick decision on what to do. It’s especially bad when I think that that whole time Java was still bleeding out into her abdomen. It was horrible! Eventually, we opted to say goodbye to Java and we were escorted to a special room with couches and blankets. Once inside, Java was preoccupied with standing or sitting by the door, probably wanting to get away from the whole situation. The emergency vet and the tech each dropped in to see how we were doing and when they did Java perked up a bit to see someone new. The tech tried to tempt her with a toy and hot dogs, but Java just wasn’t interested. By that point, I think all her energy was being used up just to keep going. Finally, we were able to bring her closer where we could pet her and say our last good byes. My wife and I were both crying and in shock. Java was always so hyper, like in your face. She was an explosive ball of energy her whole life and to see her like this was unreal. I did my best to pet her in her favorite spots and to tell her she was a good dog and that I loved her very much. As we left, our old friend was lying there peacefully as if fixed in a dream. I’ll miss her always and there really isn’t a week that goes by that we don’t find ourselves thinking of her and how her life was cut short. It’s an absolute tragedy.

    1. You did the right thing. I went through surgery with my dog once and the recovery, when you’re a dog and don’t understand why you have to lay around and take meds, was incredibly difficult and no fun for anyone so I can’t imagine going through that only to extend life by a few weeks (and who knows if my dog would even be feeling good during those few weeks anyway). It’s a rotten thing to go through and I have so much guilt about it. We did rescue another pit bull and that has helped a lot but as you said, I think about Scooby what feels like all day every day.

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