Osteosarcoma in Dogs

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP; Debbie Stoewen DVM, MSW, RSW, PhD; Christopher Pinard, DVM

What is osteosarcoma?

xOsteosarcoma is a malignant tumor of the bone.  Osteosarcomas are tumors that arise from the abnormal production of cells that create and break down bone (called osteoblasts and osteoclasts, respectively). The long bones (front and hind legs) are the most commonly affected, though bones such as the jaw, hips, or pelvis may also be affected. Osteosarcoma can also affect non-bony tissues, including the mammary glands, spleen, liver, and kidneys. This is called extraskeletal osteosarcoma.

What causes this type of tumor?

The reason why a particular pet may develop this, or any tumor, is not straightforward. Very few tumors and cancers have a single known cause. Most seem to be caused by a complex mix of risk factors, some environmental and some genetic or hereditary.

Osteosarcomas appear to affect large breed dogs more commonly than the small breeds. Reported predisposed breeds include Boxer Dogs, Doberman Pinschers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherd Dogs, Great Danes,  Greyhounds, Irish Setters, Irish Wolfhounds, and  Rottweilers.

What are the signs of osteosarcoma?

Osteosarcoma is very painful. If your dog has an osteosarcoma of the limb (appendicular osteosarcoma), lameness or a distinct swelling may be noted. Your dog may be more lethargic, have loss of appetite, and be reluctant to walk or play due to pain caused by the tumor on the bone.

The most common areas for osteosarcomas in dogs are the radius/ulna above the carpus (front knee/wrist) and the tibia/fibula below the stifle/knee), but osteosarcoma of the digits (toes), femur (above the stifle), and hip occur as well.

How is osteosarcoma diagnosed?

Most dogs with osteosarcoma will limp on the affected limb. Swelling is usually noted where the tumor has grown, and the area will be warm to the touch due to of the extreme inflammation. Your veterinarian will take X-rays of the region. Osteosarcomas appear lytic (meaning pieces of bone are missing) or ‘moth-eaten’ due to the loss of normal bone tissue. Fractures can be present if the bone has weakened enough.

Once a lesion is suspected, a more definitive diagnosis may be obtained by a fine needle aspiration. This involves taking a small needle with a syringe and suctioning a sample of cells directly from the lesion and placing them on a microscope slide. A veterinary pathologist then examines the slide under a microscope. This is performed under sedation. If this procedure is not diagnostic, a bone biopsy may be warranted. In most cases, lytic bone lesions found on X-rays are indicative of either an infectious or malignant process and further diagnostics are always recommended.

How does this cancer typically progress?


Osteosarcoma in dogs is extremely aggressive. At the time of diagnosis, about 90-95% of dogs will have micrometastasis, meaning the cancer cells have already spread elsewhere even though they are not detectable. Therefore, staging (searching for potential spread to other locations in the body) is always recommended in dogs with osteosarcoma. This may include bloodwork, urinalysis, X-rays of the lungs, and possibly an abdominal ultrasound, CT or MRI. If any lymph nodes are enlarged or feel abnormal, further sampling may be pursued to determine if spread is present.

What are the treatments for this type of tumor?

Without evidence of spread, the primary goal is local tumor control. This typically involves amputation of the affected limb. Though this is unsettling for many dog owners, most dogs do very well after amputation. Surgery is almost always pursued as long as it is a safe and viable option as it provides significant relief from pain.

Chemotherapy is nearly always pursued post-surgery to help control the disease for as long as possible. Other treatment options may also be available, including certain forms of radiation therapy. Dogs don’t have as many side effects to chemotherapy as humans and quality of life is maintained or improved.

Is there anything else I should know?

Adequate pain control is of utmost importance. Discuss appropriate pre- and post-operative therapy and pain management plans with your veterinarian.

Related Articles