Sunday, January 14, 2024

Lessons Learned From my Dog’s Lymphoma Journey

 Every experience is surely different in terms of timing and things that help, but just in case it could be useful for even one person going through the process of a dog with lymphoma, here are some things I found that helped and some details on the timeline for our dog Buddy.

Disclaimer : This post just details my experience and understanding. Obviously you should consult with your vet and other sources of information when making any medical decisions for your dog.

Early Symptoms and Diagnosis

It took us a while to find out that Buddy had lymphoma. We initially took him to the vet for diarrhea. While there the vet noted hard swollen lymph nodes and said they could be from a minor illness or from something more serious and that we should keep an eye on them. The diarrhea resolved quickly with medication and he seemed pretty normal, but as weeks went by we noticed he wasn’t as peppy or cuddly and wasn’t as excited about eating. We took him back about a month later and his lymph nodes were still hard and swollen. They were pretty sure he had lymphoma and ran a test that verified it. Around this time he also became less interested in soft beds or bedding with heated pads/blankets and spent more time on the harder/cooler surfaces like carpet, rugs, and the hard floor.


After being presented the various options, we chose not to do chemo since our dog was 12 years old. Starting on a lower dose of prednisone seemed like a good balance of relieving symptoms of lymphoma and buying a little time while keeping side-effects of the medication down. Higher amounts of prednisone can often help dogs go into remission for a period of time (months?), but can also make your dog pant a lot at night or need to pee a lot more frequently (including in the middle of the night). My understanding is that chemo helps a large portion of dogs live many months or a year or two longer but rarely fully cures them. It is pretty pricey, but dogs typically handle it with lower side effects than humans.


Buddy lived for 3 months after that initial appointment for diarrhea and for two months after the official diagnosis and start of prednisone. After starting the medication, his appetite improved and he seemed more comfortable. There seemed to be a daily cycle of best appetite and energy in the afternoon and most discomfort and poor appetite late at night and early morning.

While many days it seemed like he was feeling or doing better, one thing that never stopped was the weight loss and muscle loss. Watching this and gradually feeling more bone along his back and hips was one of the hardest parts of the process. He also steadily became pickier and pickier in terms of what he would eat.

Things that helped

Another difficult and time-consuming aspect of dealing with Buddy’s lymphoma was trying to figure out ways to get him to feel better, eat more food, and take his medicine. Things that worked one day often didn’t work just a few days later.

Medication: For medications, pill pocket treats helped for a long time. You can also shove a pill in chunks of soft food, bread, or softer treats. Pill pockets helped with supplements too when those started being unappetizing to him as well (check with your vet on supplements since they may have interactions with lymphoma medications). I know there are a lot of conflicting opinions on it, and I thought it was probably snake oil before seeing it work for us, but I will just add here that CBD oil worked for Buddy many times before and also after his diagnosis to reduce pain and discomfort.

Food: Figuring out things Buddy would eat was often frustrating as it changed frequently. Rotating through things that work might help them work longer than repeating specific foods over and over. When Buddy stopped eating his kibble, adding wet food helped for a bit and varying the wet food flavor helped as well. He often seemed to prefer the kind that had chunks in gravy rather than the blended kind. At one point wet food on kibble stopped working and he was being picky even about pure wet food. I went to a local pet food store and they sent me home with food toppers that really helped. These tended to be ground up freeze dried meats. In particular rabbit hearts seemed to have lasting power being tasty and making other things tasty. Other things that he ate near the end when almost nothing else worked include: peanut or almond butter on toast, roasted or rotisserie turkey and chicken, and cooked salmon. Heating the chicken in a bit of water and mixing it all in with other food sometimes got him to eat the other food too. You can get some of these tasty things with lower salt or no preservatives to make them slightly less unhealthy if you prefer (but salt, fat, or nitrates may not be the biggest threat to your pet’s health at this point).

Mobility: I think we may have gotten lucky, but Buddy was able to go on long walks and use the bathroom outside until just a few hours before he passed. One thing he wasn’t able to do the last few weeks was get onto beds, something he used to love doing in order to cuddle or look out the window. I spent a lot of time thinking about the right kind of ramp/stairs to get that would allow him to get up on beds, but I think I ended up making a poor decision since he never used the one I got (luckily it was good for kids to play on!). I got a foam based one with rounded stairs thinking it would be less intimidating and less slick than proper hard stairs. In retrospect, I think some more normal stairs, maybe a bit wide and not too steep would have been the better way to go. A wide collapsable ramp might have also worked, but would have been tricky to fit in our space.

Mourning before and after: One think that makes a cancer, and maybe particularly a lymphoma, diagnosis hard is that you find out our your dog is very likely to pass away and that it will be a process that takes weeks or months or maybe a year or two if you do chemo rather than something that happens suddenly. This meant that in some ways we were mourning Buddy while he was still around able to play, go on walks, and eat regular food. I knew his passing would be hard on my, but I wasn’t prepared for how difficult it would be and for how long. Reaching out to friends and family really helped, as did reading this Scientific American article on pet loss. After sharing on social media, it became clear that so many people in my life had gone through similarly difficult losses of pets and that it is normal to be really sad for days, weeks, months, etc. after the loss of a pet.

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