The Dog's Body Knows There Is Something Wrong Before The Labs Do: Ruger's Mysterious Illness

by  Krista Magnifico, DVM

Ruger’s story began when he came in because he had a decreased appetite and was vomiting. 

Ruger, a 7 year old Golden Retriever, is owned by two of the nicest people and they adore him. He is a 70 pound gentle, docile, affectionate boy. He is charming and irresistible.

On his first visit we treated him like we do many acute gastro-intestinal disease dogs. 

We took a full history, gave him a thorough physical examination, offered to run some basic diagnostics, (but didn’t force because he was “acute”) and treated conservatively with anti-nausea drugs, subq fluids, and gastro-protectants.

Three days later his owners called back to say he had begun to vomit again and now his stool was loose. 

This time his owners elected to run the recommended basic diagnostics.

We ran bloodwork, took x-rays, and went over the history again to make sure nothing had changed or been overlooked. This time we learned that his food had recently been changed, and he wasn’t on heartworm preventative.

So we ran a heartworm test, it was negative, thank-goodness, and put him on a bland commercial diet.

We also learned that Ruger had had seizures in the past. 

His bloodwork came back inconclusive (a nice way to say, thanks for paying for this but, sadly, it didn’t really help us get an answer). But the next day Ruger was feeling better; only to return 10 days later.

OK, detectives, here where the years of sleuthing pay off! So let’s go back over his history so far. Because we now have all of the clues we need to help steer us in the right direction.
  • 7 year old Golden Retriever; unfortunately for Goldens this is the time we start looking for cancer. These guys are cancer factories. They all die of cancer!

  • Waxing and waning disease. Big red flag. There is something going on. The dog knows it, so you better start digging, it is there lurking somewhere.

  • Vomiting and loose stool/diarrhea means you have something going on in the gut. These cases frequently wax and wane so take serial weights. The scale doesn’t lie. He was 70 pounds his first visit, 68 the second, and 64 the last.
He now needs to be watched very closely. Any small note of concern is reason for discussion.

Ruger returned 4 days later with the complaint “still not eating or drinking.”

His stools were getting even looser. His owners were offering anything and everything to peak his interest in food, but very little of the offerings were being contemplated or taken. We recommended they repeat the blood work and radiographs but they declined. (I think that initially this was acceptable to decline but now it should have been repeated. Just because the blood doesn’t indicate something on the first try doesn’t mean that it won’t later. I say this a lot; “Your body knows there is something wrong before the lab does.” Trust the dogs word over the labs!) We also recommended an ultrasound.

Ultrasounds are a much more sensitive way of looking inside the abdomen. 

Radiographs (slang = x-ray) are great for bone, but an ultrasound allows you to see the internal soft tissue architecture that is the contents of your belly. That’s why we use ultrasound for fetuses, and x-ray for broken bones.

The examination also revealed a depressed and dehydrated Ruger. 

I think most people significantly underestimate how important good hydration is. A day of not eating or drinking normally or a few episodes of vomiting can cause significant dehydration. Once the dehydration starts snowballing, every hour makes it exponentially and significantly worse. This is why we vets tell owners to bring their pet in when they call and tell us their pet has been vomiting and/or having diarrhea.

The vet who saw Ruger on this visit had only two rule outs for his possible diagnosis; gastrointestinal disease and cancer.

Three days later, Ruger still wasn't eating or drinking. At this point everyone at the clinic was worried enough to start talking about referring Ruger to a specialist. This, and repeating the bloodwork was declined. We also scheduled them for an ultrasound in 2 days, (the soonest we could get it) and we added medications for diarrhea. We offered to run the diagnostics as soon as the owners wanted. We received a few phone calls updating us on Ruger. He was doing better, eating better, and his owners believed he was back to normal: disaster averted, and ultrasound cancelled.

Then Ruger vomited bile. 

His parents scheduled an ultrasound for ASAP.

The ultrasound finally hit pay dirt! 

Thank goodness, after all of this it was time to start finding a villain to point the finger at. The ultrasound found “the mid to distal (away from) small intestine revealed a significant infiltrative pattern with loss of detail, (something is there that is mucking up the normal architecture).. strongly suggestive of lymphoma or carcinoma (bad and worse cancer). Intraoperative ultrasound would be warranted." In another words, the Internal Medicine Specialist reading the ultrasound thinks that the abnormal tissue won’t be seen grossly during an exploratory surgery. He recommends the surgeon be ultrasounding their way through the abdomen so we don’t miss the abnormal spot. Problem with that is it is waay expensive!

I discussed the ultrasound findings and suggestions with Ruger’s parents and they decided to have me just go in and do the old fashioned exploratory surgery. 

(Ok time for my personal admission, I LOVE EXPLORATORIES! I love the whole treasure hunting, never know what your-gonna-find mystery, so fun I can’t even stand it!)

One big deep breath, and all doubts of ability cast aside, the next day Ruger was in surgery. 

I made my midline ventral abdominal incision and entered Ruger’s belly.

Lucky for all of us I found a big abnormal mass in the area of the stomach. 

It was easily removed and Ruger’s worrisome surgery ended quickly and without fanfare. His intestinal culprit was put in a bottle and sent off to be fixed in formaline, shaved into little slivers, and scrutinized under a microscope.

5 days later we had a diagnosis for Ruger. It was lymphoma. 

His biopsy report read “intestinal mass: malignant lymphoma..the long term prognosis is poor.” With these words Ruger was taken to an oncologist for a treatment plan and a miracle.

Getting the already not eating Ruger to eat after having been opened and explored was not happening. He protested for days, and refused every morsel offered. We were also struggling with keeping his total protein, (specifically albumin, the tiny very important vital to life protein so that your blood actually stays in your vessels) in the normal range.

He became so weak and lifeless that we were forced to give him a plasma transfusion. 

As happy as I was to have a diagnosis, I was concerned I might lose my patient before we got to the treatment part. Even with the transfusion, he wouldn’t resume eating. So we turned to drugs, and within a day those drugs had him eating.

Ruger took his second wind and ran. 

He did great for a month. During this time he started his chemotherapy and we all regained our hope for his recovery. Because he was doing so well, and because there are detrimental adverse effects to long term drug use, we started to taper his drugs. But unfortunately as we started to taper him off of these drugs he started to turn his nose up to his food again. Within a few days we ended up right back at transfusions and those same steroids and appetite stimulant drugs.

Ruger spent his last three days at the emergency hospital. 

They were suggesting he continue with the transfusions. His parents called me in deep despair seeking advice for what they should do. I knew by their voices that they wanted Ruger to be cured, but understood he wasn’t going to be.

They wanted someone to give them advice based on what was right for Ruger and not what was right for the cancer. 

I told them that Ruger had given up a long time ago, and that keeping him alive in a hospital wasn’t what he wanted. He was weak, and tired and ready.

They were so grateful for the permission to let him go. They just couldn’t say it and they didn’t want to admit it.

There were many conversations exchanged between us after Ruger passed. There were words of sorrow, acceptance, and grief, and many, many tears. I was sad to say goodbye to Ruger, but I was more saddened by the thought of not seeing his parents, or worse yet, not seeing them and knowing that they didn’t want to love another dog, or love anything again, because it hurts too much to lose a pet.

A few weeks later Ruger’s dad came in with an eight week old Golden that they named Timber.
Oh, Timber, you are another story! Cutest puppy ever, but his story, that’s another tale of drama and…oh, its too good to leak..stay tuned!


Krista Magnifico, DVM owns a small animal hospital in northern Maryland, where she practices everyday. She wants to make quality veterinary care available to everyone, everywhere at any time; trying to save the world 1 wet nose @ a time.  Her blog is a diary of he day-to-day life & the animals and people she meets. 

Dr. Krista is also the founder of, free pet advice and assistance.

To contact her, you may leave a comment on her blog, email her or catch her on Twitter or Facebook.

Articles by Dr. Magnifico:
Don't Make This Mistake: Ruby's Death To Heat Stroke 
Parvo: Cora's Story 
Jake's Laryngeal Paralysis
The Tip Of The Iceberg: The Unexpected Dental Dilemma
The Ear Ache That Wasn't Going Away: Tottsie's Story
Cody's Eyelid Tumor 


  1. Poor Ruger :( This story truly brought tears to my eyes. It's terrible feeling like you can't help your best friend. I was so stressed paying for the medication my 12 year old border collie Clover needs for her condition. I used to be on vpi pet insurance, but I got a quote from Pets Best and luckily found a plan I could afford.

    1. Hi Jess, it certainly is. The sad part is that sooner or later this will happen. Not many dogs die naturally of old age.

      We went with Trupanion. It is somewhat costly, but there are no coverage limits (at least officially the're not)


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