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Brain tumors in dogs and cats

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Brain tumors are found in both dogs and cats, but are most common in dogs.  In fact, they are more common in dogs than in any other species of domestic animal.  Brain tumors usually develop in older dogs, especially in breeds with "pushed-in" faces, such as Boxers, Bulldogs, and Boston Terriers.  Cancer can originate in brain tissue, which is called primary brain cancer, or it can travel into the brain through metastasis, the process by which cancer cells from the primary tumor site move to other parts of the body.  Sometimes cancer from the nasal sinuses can spread to the brain, or a primary tumor in another part of the body may metastasize to the brain via the blood.  

The most common sign of brain tumor is seizure, especially when this occurs in an older dog without other predisposing problems (e.g., diabetes or liver disease).  Brain tumors are also commonly associated with staggering or other strange behaviors, such as walking aimlessly, walking in circles, persistent staring, or "snapping at (nonexistent) flies." 

Your veterinarian can make a presumptive diagnosis based on history and physical exam, including a neurologic evaluation of your pet's reflexes.  Your vet may also run other tests, such as blood work or a urinalysis, to rule out other causes of seizures.  A definitive diagnosis of brain tumor requires a CAT scan or MRI, which is usually available only at veterinary teaching hospitals.  Plain x-rays and ultrasound do not penetrate the skull well enough to provide useful images of the brain. 

The prognosis for a pet with brain tumor is guarded to poor, with most surviving for only weeks to months.  Treatment usually consists of palliative therapy to relieve symptoms  temporarily and ease discomfort.  For example, corticosteroids are often given to relieve swelling of the brain, and drugs such as phenobarbital can be used to decrease seizure activity.  Some tumors respond well to radiation and/or chemotherapy, potentially postponing death for several months to a year or so, but this involves multiple treatments, usually available only at veterinary teaching hospitals or specialty practices.  Superficial tumors can be removed surgically, but this is a highly specialized procedure that carries a high risk of death or other serious complication.

 

Q&A

What pets are most at risk for a brain tumor?

Brain tumors are most common in older dogs, especially in breeds such as boxers, bulldogs, and Boston terriers. 

What are the signs of brain tumor?

The most common sign of a brain tumor is seizure.  Other signs commonly include staggering and strange behaviors, such as walking aimlessly or in circles. 

How is brain tumor diagnosed?

Most cases are diagnosed based on history and physical exam.  Definitive diagnosis requires a CAT scan or MRI, which is usually available only at veterinary teaching hospitals. 

How are brain tumors treated?

Some cases respond well to chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgical removal, but these are expensive and specialized procedures that can be fraught with complications.  Most cases are treated with palliative drugs to temporarily relieve symptoms and reduce discomfort.

 

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD and Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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