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All You Need to Know About Skin Cancer in Dogs

Our dogs are prone to various types of skin cancer, ranging from benign to deadly. Learn more about keeping your pooch safe from the sun’s harmful rays and understanding the various types of dermatological cancers.


Written by Animalia Team

skin cancer dogs

Today’s pet dogs are often accustomed to receiving the same quality of care as their humans. Unfortunately, that’s because they’re also susceptible to many of the same conditions we are too. These dreaded diagnoses include “the big C.” Numerous types of cancer are common in canines, often resulting from the same environmental and health factors that cause cancers in people. Our dogs are prone to various types of skin cancer, ranging from benign to deadly. Learn more about keeping your pooch safe from the sun’s harmful rays and understanding the various types of dermatological cancers. 

  Can dogs get skin cancer?

Nobody wants to learn that their beloved pup has cancer, but a staggering number of pet lovers get this bad news every year. Statistics show that 1 in 4 dogs will get cancer at some point in their lives. Among dogs who live to ten years of age or older, 50% will develop cancer. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in dogs. That’s due in part to the relative ease with which it is diagnosed and the exposure of a dog’s skin to the elements.     

Knowing the common signs and causes of skin cancer can help you work alongside your veterinarian to make health a priority and proactively combat conditions of all types.     

The human epidermis (outer layer of skin) is far thicker than its canine equivalent, sometimes featuring twice as many layers of cells.

Causes of skin cancer in dogs

Skin cancer, like other types of cancers, begins when cells start to grow uncontrollably. Some cases are mysterious, but doctors have identified a number of potential risk factors that commonly contribute to skin cancer.

  • Exposure to the sun: Dogs can get skin cancer as a result of excessive exposure to the sun’s harsh rays. Ultraviolet radiation can alter a dog’s (or a person’s) DNA and contribute to out-of-control cellular growth.
  • Infections: Some bacterial and viral infections can cause skin cancer in dogs. For example, the Papillomavirus may lead to papilloma tumors or warts that spread quickly in young dogs.
  • Genetics: Certain dog breeds are more prone to specific cancers than others. For instance, Golden Retrievers, Poodles, Labrador Retrievers, Yorkshire Terriers, and Rottweilers experience 50% of all oral melanoma cases.
  • Environmental pollution: Some environmental wastes can cause skin cancer in dogs. These include smoke, pesticides, and radioactive wastes.
  • Chemicals: Some cleaning chemicals and food additives that dogs regularly encounter may be carcinogenic. Make sure to research the products you purchase on your dog’s behalf.

Types of canine skin cancer

Dogs can get many types of skin cancer, but we’ll look at four primary varieties: 

1. Malignant melanoma

Malignant melanoma is a skin cancer affecting the cells that produce melanin, the pigment that determines skin color. Skin afflicted with this type of cancer loses its normal color as symptoms progress. It may appear unusually dark or pinkish as it loses its usual pigment. Usually, this cancer develops around the mouth, nail beds, lips, and eyes. That said, it can affect any part of a dog’s body. 

2. Mast cell tumors

Mast cells are white blood cells found beneath the skin. They produce chemicals like histamine, which causes allergic reactions and helps the body develop immunity. When these cells begin to grow uncontrollably, they produce mast cell tumors. They are the most common skin cancers in dogs and are more common in middle-aged dogs. Though they can grow anywhere, they are especially common around the limbs, chest, and lower abdomen.  

3. Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cells form the middle and outer layers of the skin. Cancer affecting these cells is most common in older dogs. It usually results from too much exposure to the sun and you’re more likely to find it around a dog’s head, rear, lower legs, and abdomen.      

4. Histiocytic cell tumors

Histiocytic cells are immune cells that originate from the bone marrow and are found in various body organs, including the skin. These cells usually experience three types of tumors: cutaneous histiocytomas, histiocytic sarcomas, and reactive histiocytosis. Although these cancers can occur at any age, they’re more common among dogs below three years of age.      

Symptoms of skin cancer in dogs

What does skin cancer look like in dogs? Some symptoms may vary based on the type and severity, but the most obvious signs of canine skin cancer are sudden changes to the texture or appearance of the skin. Oftentimes, the naked eye is enough to recognize cancer. 

Melanoma in dogs results in symptoms including discoloration of the mouth, lips, gum, tongue, and toenails. You might also notice bloody drool, foul breath, loose toenails, and teeth, swelling on the face and feet, or difficulty eating.    

Other types of cancer may cause symptoms including a dark spot in the eyes or wounds that fail to heal for two weeks or longer. Some symptoms of cancer may not be so obvious. So take careful note of any changes in your dog’s behavior or temperament. 

Just like humans, dogs lose their energy and appetite when they’re sick. If you notice your dog refusing to eat, don’t simply conclude you made a terrible dinner. Observe the dog closely. If the problem continues, take your dog to the vet to discuss potential causes.

Diagnosing skin cancer in dogs

Though the word ‘tumor’ strikes fear in pet lovers’ hearts, not all tumors are signs of cancer. Some growths are benign. Though they may be unsightly, they don’t spread to other parts of the body and cause more serious trouble. Cancerous tumors are called malignant tumors and they’re characterized by their voracious spread.

Therefore, if your dog has a lump on the skin, don’t conclude it’s cancer. First, check with your dog’s veterinarian for an in-depth diagnosis. If the tumor appears in several locations, it could be spreading and, therefore, cancerous. Either way, take your dog to the vet for a proper diagnosis. 

The vet will perform a fine needle aspirate, which takes a small sample of skin cells for testing. If the lump is highly suspicious, the veterinarian can perform a biopsy by removing the tumor and sending it to a pathologist for further examination. 

skin cancer dogs
Close up shot of dog nose, Dog nose and face with brown background, animal pets beauty
Our skin has a vast network of sweat glands undergirding it. Dogs, on the other hand, have a small number of sweat glands and primarily perspire through their paws.

Treatment options for skin cancer in dogs

It’s okay to feel worried if your vet diagnoses skin cancer. Skin cancer in dogs can be fatal if you fail to detect it early and treat it effectively. Stay calm and talk to them about the various methods available to treat your pet’s condition. 

Your veterinarian may refer you to veterinary oncologists who specialize in cancer treatment. Their methods will depend on the type of cancer, location, and stage. Treatment options include chemotherapy, surgery, and radiotherapy. In many instances, the vet will use two or more methods to come up with an ideal treatment plan.

Preventing skin cancer in dogs

Avoiding overexposure to the sun is one of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce your dog’s skin cancer risk. Don’t let your dog get too comfortable in the sun, especially if they don’t have very much fur. An exposure period of 20 minutes to 1 hour should be plenty. If they’ll be spending lots of time outdoors, make sure they have access to shade or wear protective clothing to keep them safe. 

If you have doubts about the food and cleaning products you use, consult your veterinarian. Regular checkups are also essential for enabling early detection and improving overall health.

Which breeds are most prone to skin cancer?

Even though all dog breeds can get cancer, some are more susceptible to this dreadful disease than others. Dogs with short hair and light-colored fur are generally more prone to skin cancer. These include Pit Bulls, Labrador Retrievers, and dogs with white coats. Dogs who sunbathe on their backs are also potentially putting themselves at risk by exposing vulnerable stretches of skin. 

Other dog breeds with a high risk of skin cancer include Scottish Terriers, Boston Terriers, Bloodhounds, Greyhounds, Boxers, Shar Peis, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Pugs, and Standard Poodles.   

Safeguard your dog’s health

The best defense against a cancer diagnosis is a proactive approach to pet care. Regular check-ups can help improve your vet’s chances of spotting trouble early and a pet insurance policy can help ensure you’re always capable of affording the best possible care. Get a quote from Animalia today. 


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