What Are the Symptoms of Bladder Cancer in Dogs?

Since starting Paws Into Grace in 2007, I’ve seen how families struggle with their dog’s quality of life deterioration due to bladder cancer. I believe it is important for owners to understand bladder cancer symptoms to allow for early detection and intervention. Understanding these symptoms allows for diagnosis and medications to ensure the dog is comfortable up until the disease progresses and euthanasia is the best option to relieve suffering. Unfortunately, bladder cancer symptoms may also resemble those of a urinary tract infection. In some unfortunate cases, the disease may be left untreated because a simple urinary tract infection or bladder stones were suspected. 

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What Are the Symptoms of Bladder Cancer in Dogs?

Symptoms of bladder cancer in dogs can manifest as frequent urination, difficulty or discomfort during urination, incontinence, hematuria (also known as bloody urine), and recurrent or resistant urinary tract infections. You may observe lethargy, weight loss, frequent urination, straining to urinate or even constant pacing and attempting to urinate without success or only a few drops. These symptoms are likely caused by a tumor causing bladder inflammation.

These tumors are more common in older dogs and females compared to males. This type of aggressive cancer may also spread to other parts of the body including the remaining parts of the urinary tract system such the urethra, ureters, kidneys and prostate in male dogs. It also spreads easily to distant sites such as the lungs, lymph nodes and liver. This type of distant spread is called metastasis and may cause coughing or an increased breathing rate. Disease that spreads to the liver may cause lethargy, anorexia, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea and even seizures.

Unfortunately, most bladder cancer is not caught early on and in some cases, it may have spread throughout the body at the time of diagnosis. According to Dr. Sue Ettinger, Veterinary Oncologist approximately 15% of patients will have spread to lymph nodes and 20% of dogs will have distant metastasis to the lungs or liver by the time the cancer is diagnosed. The cancer is invasive, aggressive in the bladder and has high metastasis potential or spread to other organs. 

Recognizing Bladder Cancer Symptoms in Dogs

Unfortunately, as previously noted, bladder cancer often goes undetected until later stages due to symptoms that closely resemble those of a routine urinary tract infection or bladder stones. Dogs with bladder tumors may exhibit identical symptoms and may even experience recurring or stubborn urinary tract infections concurrently. A stubborn urinary tract infection refers to cases where prescribed antibiotics fail to resolve the infection or where the infection returns shortly after completing a course of antibiotics. Distinguishing between a urinary tract infection, bladder cancer, or bladder stones without veterinary diagnostics is challenging. The key takeaway is clear: if your older dog (over 6 years of age) shows symptoms consistent with a urinary tract infection, additional cancer screening is warranted to rule out underlying bladder cancer. The most prevalent form of bladder cancer is known as Transitional Cell Carcinoma (TCC) or Urothelial Carcinoma, which encompasses other types of bladder and urinary tract cancers.

The breeds most commonly affected include Scottish Terriers, Beagles, West Highland Terriers, Wire Fox Terriers, American Eskimo Dogs, Australian Cattle Dogs, Australian Shepherds, Lhasa Apsos, Bichon Frises, and Border Collies. While this type of cancer can also occur in other breeds and mixed-breed dogs, these particular breeds appear to have a predisposition to developing this tumor. This information is valuable for screening purposes; if your dog belongs to one of these breeds, is displaying symptoms, and is older, it’s crucial to conduct tests to determine if there is underlying cancer.

Lady crouching next to a fluffy white dog

What are other risk factors for developing this cancer? 

  • Lawn insecticide and pesticide exposure
  • Female dogs compared to male dogs 
  • Flea dip products not topical products but the older more traditional over the counter flea dip treatments 
  • Cyclophosphamide, chemotherapy drug used to treat Lymphoma 
  • Overweight dogs 
  • Leafy green vegetables fed at least 3 times per week reduces risk. Please avoid Onions which are toxic. (Source: petMED
Symptom Effect
Hematuria or bloody urine Blood in the urine is caused by the tumor bleeding or the surrounding tissue in the bladder becoming inflamed as the tumor disrupts the normal bladder 
Frequent urination Often owners confuse frequent urination with urinary incontinence or dribbling urine. Frequent urination is different than urinary incontinence because the patient is attempting to urinate and posturing to urinate frequently
Straining to urinate or dysuria Indicates discomfort or difficulty urinating
Incontinence There may be true incontinence leaking urine if the bladder invades the urethra or portions of the bladder. Often times, owners confuse frequent urination with incontinence
Bladder infections The tumor is not healthy normal tissue in the bladder. These growths are predisposed to get infected. A bladder infection may be diagnosed by a urinalysis or urine culture. A bladder tumor should be suspected in an older dog if there are recurrent urinary tract infections or a urinary tract infection that does not go away after antibiotic treatment. Further testing should be done to rule out a possible bladder tumor if there are recurrent bladder infections. 
Genital swelling Indicates invasion or possible parietal urethral obstruction, causing pain and difficulty urinating
Lethargy Advanced cancer may cause fatigue, weakness, and weight loss
Constant pacing There may be discomfort or a sensation that the bladder needs to be voided causing pacing and restless behavior
Seizures Advanced cancer can spread to the brain or liver 

Diagnosing the Symptoms of Canine Bladder Cancer

Studies show that around 50,000 dogs will be diagnosed with bladder cancer annually, with tumors already metastasized or spread to other organs in 15% to 20% at the time of diagnosis. These tests can help you understand if the urinary symptoms concern bladder cancer. There is difficulty with diagnosis because oftentimes the physical exam is normal.

An owner hugging his dog

The Veterinarian will perform a physical exam listening to the heart, palpating lymph nodes and even the abdomen with no abnormal findings. Other screening tests are important and needed to find bladder cancer. I would recommend even performing tests such as an abdomen ultrasound and CADET BRAF testing in older patients that are considered an at risk breed.

  • Blood Panel: Comprehensive blood work can reveal signs of infection, inflammation. The kidneys or liver may also be affected with elevated values. It is also very common for the blood panel to be normal.
  • Urinalysis: This diagnostic test looks for abnormal cells that might indicate cancer or an infection. 
  • Abdomen ultrasound: An ultrasound provides a detailed picture of the bladder to scan for tumors. An endoscopy may also be recommended. If a bladder tumor is detected Chest Xrays should also be performed to make certain it has not spread or metastasized to the lungs. 
  • CADET BRAF testing: This non-invasive test detects a mutation prevalent in some forms of canine cancer. This test is very sensitive at detecting bladder cancer and is even used to monitor response to treatment by Oncologists.

Deciding on Treatment and Euthanasia Options for Bladder Cancer in Dogs

In my practice, I’ve seen many families face challenging treatment decisions about when to euthanize dogs with bladder cancer

  • Surgery: I recommend surgery if the tumor is small and hasn’t spread near the bladder’s neck or trigone. Unfortunately, most cases have tumors in parts of the bladder where surgery is not an option. The prospects of surgery include the potential removal of the cancerous growth and the chance for an extended quality of life. The first and preferred treatment is surgery if the tumor is able to be resected or removed with complete margins and is not near the lower portion of the bladder. Surgery is more likely an option if the tumor is detected early with screening such as annual bladder ultrasounds and CADET BRAF test for dogs at risk for this aggressive cancer. The survival time with surgery alone is 3-4 months because the tumor will recur or grow back without further treatment such as chemotherapy.
  • Chemotherapy and NSAIDS: Consider chemotherapy to slow tumor growth, alleviate symptoms, and prolong survival in some cases. A study shows dogs with cancer in the bladder have an average survival rate of 250 to 300 days with the help of chemotherapy and an anti-inflammatory drug such as Piroxicam or Galliprant. There are other possible anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDS that can also be prescribed by your veterinarian or veterinary oncologist. Both of these medications reduce bladder inflammation giving pain relief and actually suppress tumor growth. The medical treatment is reported to give a good quality for several months if cancer is diagnosed early. Chemotherapy is not curative rather it can manage symptoms giving a good quality of life for 75-80% of dogs for around a full year. (Reference: Dr. Su Ettinger, “Bladder Cancer Treatment Vlog”) Some patients only respond for 2-3 months and others have survived longer. There are many types of chemotherapy drugs and each of these may have different side effects. The more common side effect would be gastrointestinal upset such as decreased appetite, vomiting or diarrhea. Chemotherapy should be discussed with a veteirnary oncologist for more details. 
  • NSAIDS alone:Several different NSAIDs or anti-inflammatory drugs can be used as an alternative to chemotherapy. These medications help reduce bladder inflammation, manage pain, and can actually slow down tumor growth and spread. While not all tumors respond to NSAIDs, both Transitional Cell Carcinoma (TCC) and Urothelial Cancer show some susceptibility to these drugs, resulting in a deceleration of their progression. To illustrate, attending a Monster Truck rally can offer a fitting analogy. Picture the bladder tumor as the colossal monster truck and the NSAID as the thick mud on the track, slowing down or even halting the tumor’s movement at times. However, like the monster truck shifting gears, the effectiveness of the NSAID can diminish as the tumor progresses to a more advanced stage. Using NSAIDs alone typically extends survival by an average of 7 months, providing a significant improvement in the quality of life by managing pain and symptoms during the initial phase of treatment. Nonetheless, there is a risk of kidney, liver, and gastrointestinal side effects. Therefore, regular blood panel monitoring is essential to promptly detect and address any potential adverse effects.
  • Radiation therapy: This therapy may shrink tumors and manage pain associated with tumor growth but not every patient is a candidate.
  • Hospice care: Hospice care provides supportive measures to keep your dog comfortable during their final days. When treatment is not an option due to advanced disease or other factors, hospice offers pain management, nutritional support, and emotional support for your family.
  • Euthanasia: I approach this conversation with kindness, ensuring you understand that euthanasia can be a compassionate choice when your dog’s quality of life has significantly deteriorated and the cancer has progressed or spread to other organs. 

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Related Questions

What Causes the Symptoms of Bladder Cancer in Dogs?

Bladder cancer symptoms in dogs are typically produced by the abnormal growth of cells in the urinary bladder, most commonly arising from transitional cell carcinoma. These cancerous cells can lead to partial or complete urine obstruction or  bladder irritation.

What is the Prognosis of a Dog With Bladder Cancer Symptoms?

The average life expectancy of dogs after a diagnosis of cancer in the bladder is about four to six months even with anti-inflammatory medications. The prognosis depends mostly on early detection. Some dogs may live for a year or longer with appropriate treatment by a Veterinary Oncologist.

How Do You Tell if a Dog Has Signs of Cancer in the Bladder?

Identifying the signs of cancer in the bladder involves keenly observing a dog’s urinary habits. Frequent attempts to urinate, producing small amounts each time, and the presence of blood in the urine are concerning indicators.

Conclusion

Be aware of canine cancer symptoms such as frequent urination, straining to urinate and blood in the urine. Early detection with tests such as a urinalysis, abdomen ultrasound and a BRAF screening test, are the best pieces of advice I can give you.

Although this disease and aggressive cancer can not be cured it may be managed. Patients can have a good quality of life for several months with various treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy or NSAIDS until hospice, or in-home pet euthanasia is recommended  to prevent further suffering when the cancer has progressed. 

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I can't recommend them enough. I had to say goodbye to my 21 year old cat companion. I read the reviews here on Yelp and chose Paws Into Grace and they made an unbearable situation not worse - from the people on the phone to the amazing doctor who came out to the house. She was so understanding and supportive. They were all so helpful, understanding and nice. My girl got to stay at home and say goodbye in the backyard (a hummingbird flew over and it seemed like a good sign too). So glad I didn't have to take her to a cold vet office.

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My absolute love Dante had heart failure three months ago. After having him on many medications to help him, his enthusiasm and appetite declined last couple of days. He was in pain and we decided to help him go to heaven rather than torturing him with more medications which would make him even more miserable. I called and spoke to a very kind lady who was patient as I cried through making an appointment. We made an appointment for 1:30pm. Dr. Toni arrived. She was very kind, explained everything to us and gave us the time to be with our boy after the first shot. He wasn't relaxing enough so she gave him a second shot. We stayed with him throughout the entire process and I carried him to her car in the end. It was a very difficult decision but knowing that our boy is not in pain, gives us some peace. We are thankful to Dr. Toni for her kindness and compassion. They will arrange the cremation for us. Since we are in a pandemic, we had our masks on and said goodbye to our boy in our garden.

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