Hemangiosarcoma in Italian Greyhounds
authored by Layle Griffioen, DVM
Cancer is a word that strikes fear into the hearts of pet owners. Luckily for IG fanciers, the incidence of cancer in this breed is fairly low. Our most recent health survey (link to Van Andel survey) indicated that only 14% of the dogs entered in the survey had been diagnosed with any type of tumor. Perhaps surprisingly, the majority of those reported tumors were hemangiosarcomas.
Hemangiosarcoma (HSA) is a sarcoma (malignant tumor of connective or other non-epithelial tissue) arising from the lining of blood vessels. Veterinarians commonly see large dogs with visceral, or internal HSA, which most often involves the spleen, and less often, the liver or heart. Visceral HSA is highly aggressive, virtually always having metastasized by the time it is diagnosed. Removal of the spleen followed by chemotherapy can sometimes offer a few more months of quality time, and rarely, a cure. Unfortunately for those dogs affected, removal of the cancerous heart or liver tissue is usually not possible.
Italian greyhounds and whippets are highly predisposed to developing the dermal, or skin form, of HSA. These lesions start out looking like dark purple or red dots, which then grow over time to become larger and often raised. The good news is that these skin tumors very rarely metastasize provided they are removed in a timely fashion. The longer they are left to grow, the more likely it becomes that they will eventually invade the deeper tissues and spread.
These skin tumors are caused by UV light exposure. This means dogs that spend a lot of time outdoors in the sun, especially in the South or at higher elevations, are at higher risk. Once an IG develops a dermal HSA, they often go on to develop many more. Keeping your dog protected from UV radiation is one way to lower the risk of this type of skin cancer. Using a pet-safe sunscreen on thinly haired, high-UV exposure areas (the top of the nose, inguinal, and preputial areas) and even having your dog wear a t-shirt can help minimize UV exposure. And for dogs that are dealing with recurrent tumors, keeping them indoors as much as possible can help lower their risk.
Unfortunately, IG’s are also susceptible to the visceral form of HSA, which is far more deadly and can go undetected until it’s too late to help. Dogs that are affected with internal HSA often have an irregular heartbeat, and are likely to have intermittent episodes when their tumor will bleed, causing their gums and other mucous membranes to turn pale. Other signs that might be seen during an acute bleed are elevated heart rate, weakness, rapid breathing and possibly even collapse. If they are able to clot, the episode passes, often without anyone realizing there was anything amiss. Over time the tumor will grow so large that internal bleeding will go on unchecked. It is at this stage that most patients with internal HSA are presented to their veterinarians.
Note: most veterinarians do not think of IG’s as an at-risk breed for visceral HSA! If you think your dog may be showing symptoms, speak up, ask for blood work, which may show a low red blood cell and/or platelet count. Ultimately an x-ray or better yet, an ultrasound will help visualize the tumor. Early detection of internal disease can make all the difference in survival times.