Vet's corner

What you need to know about skin cancer in dogs


The ‘C’ word is always a scary one, but the good news is that vets can often treat skin cancer successfully – as long as it´s promptly identified. We asked Petplan vet Brian Faulkner for his advice on preventing, spotting and treating this disease.

So dogs can get skin cancer?

Yes. However, skin cancer in dogs shouldn’t be regarded in the same way as skin cancer in humans – which we usually assume is caused by overexposure to the sun and sunburn. Rather, dogs can be prone to tumours in which genetic factors play a role. There are many different kinds of skin tumours – some can form superficially on top of the skin, while others develop between the skin’s layers or completely under it – and they can be benign (not usually harmful) or malignant (faster growing and usually harmful).

Are senior dogs more likely to develop skin cancer?

Unfortunately, yes. Old age brings an increased probability of tumours and cancer of any organ.

What’s the most common type of skin cancer in dogs?

One of the most common and the most serious skin cancers in dogs is caused by mast cell tumours, which occur when mast cells (normal cells within the skin) become malignant. Every breed can get them, but Boxers and Golden Retrievers seem to be the most susceptible. These tumours can look like anything at all – from a raised lump on the skin, to wart-like growths or angry, red, raised areas on the skin surface. Unfortunately, we still don’t know what causes them, although genetic factors often play a role.

How can I spot the signs?

It’s important to spend regular time grooming your dog. Not only is this excellent for bonding with your pooch, but it also means you can consistently check him for unusual lumps and bumps and spot any changes in his skin as soon as they appear. Make sure to feel areas that aren’t normally stroked, touched or looked at, such as the armpits, inside the groin, under the tail and the anus.

Swelling, redness or any growths on these areas – or the appearance of an unexplained lump or bump anywhere on your dog’s skin – should immediately be checked out by your vet. It might not be as ominous as you fear; for instance, lipomas are benign tumours that are common in older dogs. However, there are misconceptions out there, including the idea that if a lump is freely moveable, or isn’t painful to the touch, it must be benign – which isn’t always the case. So, it’s vital to get your vet’s professional opinion whenever you spot something out of the ordinary.

Can I prevent it?

It’s only possible to help minimise the risk of environmentally caused tumours, such as squamous cell carcinoma (a form of skin cancer linked to sun exposure). These are far more common in cats, as they generally like to sunbathe more than dogs. However, it might still be a good idea to take extra precautions on particularly sunny days to prevent your dog from exposure to the sun when it’s at its strongest. Consider keeping him indoors and go for walks early or late in the day.

The single most important thing you can do is keep regularly checking your dog for changes on his skin. Early detection and treatment can make all the difference.

How is skin cancer diagnosed and treated?

If your vet suspects a lump might be cancerous, he or she will extract cells from it via something called a fine-needle aspirate. These cells are then placed onto a slide and examined under a microscope. The next step may then be a biopsy (where part of the tissue is removed for examination) to confirm the diagnosis. This is usually done under deep sedation or general anaesthetic.

If your vet does find signs of skin cancer, surgery will usually be recommended – with or without chemotherapy, depending on the stage of cancer. Keep in mind, though, that if caught early, most dogs have a good chance of recovery and the condition can be managed well enough to ensure it doesn’t affect your pooch’s quality of life.


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