By Matthew Kearns, DVM
Brain tumors in dogs and cats can be quite distressing to pet owners. There is no such thing as a truly benign brain tumor because even a benign tumor left untreated will eventually put pressure on surrounding structures.
The more important question I hear is, “Is there anything that can be done?” The answer to this question is yes. However, what can be done very much depends on the appearance and location of the tumor. The increased availability of advanced imaging (CT and MRI) through referral hospitals improves diagnosis and potential treatment of these tumors.
Symptoms of brain tumors usually depend on the location. Changes in behavior can be common. Signs include neck pain, aggression, lethargy, circling in one direction, head pressing into corners, anisocoria (uneven pupil size), seizures, etc. Any one of these symptoms would be an indicator to bring your dog or cat to the veterinarian.
Diagnosis always includes advanced imaging (CT or MRI). Spinal taps, or evaluation of cerebrospinal fluid, can be helpful in diagnosis in conjunction with advanced imaging. Biopsy is not performed unless the tumor is going to be surgically removed or debulked.
Surgical options: In cats, certain types of tumors such as meningiomas are surgically resectable, or removed, depending on location. In dogs, brain tumors tend to be of a class called glial cell tumors and the tumor’s location prohibits surgical removal. These cases require either chemotherapy or radiation therapy as primary options. The type of chemotherapies available can improve quality of life but can have side effects and the survival times are not as long as radiation therapy. Newer, targeted radiation techniques also decrease damage to surrounding tissues.
Cost: It is expensive. Although I do not have actual numbers I can publish in this article, any of the treatments described above are going to require specialists and specialty hospitals. That does drive up the cost quite a bit. There is also palliative care. If a brain tumor is suspected (or diagnosed) and you do not wish to pursue more aggressive treatment palliative care is available. Palliative care refers to comfort measures only, or hospice. This consists mainly of anti-inflammatories (usually corticosteroids, or cortisone derivatives), other pain medications and antiseizure medication. Palliative care does not require a specialist.
Prognosis or survival time: Generally speaking, a patient will get on average 1 to 3 months on palliative care alone. Other methods such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or combination average 1 to 3 years. Tumor type and location will play the largest role in survival time.
In summary, the ability to diagnose and treat brain tumors in dogs and cats has improved tremendously. Cost of treatment and survival times may prohibit more aggressive treatment in all cases. I hope this helps in making a decision with your veterinarian.
Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine. Have a question for Dr. Kearns? Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org to see his answer in an upcoming column.