Amber’s Canine Tonsillitis: A Diagnosis that Could Have Been Missed

June 8th, 2012 by Robin Reynolds

After two difficult amputation operations, our sweet little Airedale, Amber, was finally on the mend when I decided I should take her in to see our vet to talk about nutrition and physical therapy. Amber, being her ever-exuberant self, didn’t miss a thing. She wagged her tail furiously and pulled at her leash when she saw the vet staff. On the way to the exam room, she nosed at the toys and treats on display, just in case she might be lucky enough to snatch one from the rack on the way by.

Inside the room, she planted herself in front of the cupboard where she knew the treats were kept and waited patiently to be rewarded as Dr. Wight and I began to discuss how she was doing. During our conversation, I mentioned in passing that I noticed that every once in a while, Amber would smack her lips and would cough slightly. “It’s hardly worth mentioning,” I said. “It doesn’t happen all the time.”

Nonetheless, Dr. Wight decided to examine her throat more closely. Taken to the back where there was a brighter scope, Dr. Wight whispered in Amber’s ear, “This is going to be nothing, right Amber?” But when she looked in her throat, she could see that Amber’s tonsils were enlarged and not just a little.

Back in the exam room, Dr. Wight told me, “I’ve been in practice for 23 years and I’ve never seen a dog’s tonsils so large!” I looked at her blankly. “I didn’t even know dogs HAD tonsils!” After all, I have had dogs all my life, known many friends with dogs, and never heard of a dog with tonsillitis.

“So do we take them out?” I asked.

“Well, not usually because dogs need them for defense against bacteria. Typically we treat them with a shot of steroids, but they’re immune-suppressing. We don’t want to do that with Amber since she has had cancer.” And so it was agreed that we would try some antibiotics.

But after two courses of different antibiotics over about a month’s time, Amber’s tonsils were still enflamed. By now, I had been on the internet and I knew that canine tonsillitis that did not respond to treatment could be a sign of another cancer–lymphoma or squamous cell carcinoma. My heart was heavy and my husband and I thoughtfully considered our options before we agreed to schedule Amber for yet another surgery to have her tonsils removed. Again, it wasn’t an easy decision. Amber had already been through so much, but we could see it was getting harder for her to swallow and we didn’t want to wait until her airway was completely blocked or she couldn’t eat. So the surgery was scheduled with the same surgeon who had handled Amber’s amputations. Now we were the ones with the lump in our throats as we anxiously waited for the outcome.

The surgery went well and even though her recovery was not without its challenges (one small bleeding incident that freaked us out and an upset tummy from the medications), we finally breathed a sigh of relief when the histopath report showed only a benign polyp and no cancer.

Amber with Mom–back to her happy self.

Amber is now back to devouring her beloved Greenies, taking nightly walks and even playing a bit with Krissy. The decisions we make with our older pets are always balanced between quality of life and ability to recover, but I also realize that we must trust our gut. This diagnosis could have easily been missed if I had failed to mention my seemingly inconsequential observation to our vet. Consequently, we were able to get her treatment before her condition became much worse.

In the end, Amber doesn’t worry about her missing leg, her missing tonsils or even the missing fur on her leg where they shaved it for the IV during her operation. The only thing she misses right now is our son who is studying abroad for the summer. And she’s not alone in that.

Andrew gives Amber a last head scratch before leaving for Prague