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  • Writer's pictureVetMed Team

Skin Cancer in Dogs: What Treatments Are Available?

Skin cancer in dogs encompasses a range of conditions that can lead to the abnormal growth of cells in the skin tissues. Like humans, dogs are susceptible to various types of skin cancer, some of which can be benign (non-cancerous) while others are malignant (cancerous) and can spread to other parts of the body. The prognosis for a dog with skin cancer varies depending on the type of cancer, its stage at diagnosis, and the treatment options available.

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What is Skin Cancer in Dogs?

Skin cancer in dogs refers to the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the skin, which can form tumors. These tumors can be visible on the skin surface or hidden in the deeper layers of the skin and sometimes in the underlying tissues. Skin cancers in dogs can be classified into several types, including melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and mast cell tumors, among others. Each type has its own characteristics, behavior, and treatment protocols.

  • Melanoma: Often seen in areas of pigmented skin, but can occur anywhere on the body. It varies in malignancy.

  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma: Typically caused by sun exposure, affecting areas with minimal to no hair.

  • Mast Cell Tumors: One of the most common skin tumors in dogs, which can vary in appearance and behavior.

Skin cancer in dogs is a diverse group of diseases, each with its unique features and treatment needs. Understanding the different types of skin cancer is crucial for identifying the condition early and seeking appropriate care for your pet.

What Causes Skin Cancer?

The causes of skin cancer in dogs are multifaceted, involving genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. While some breeds are genetically predisposed to certain types of skin cancers, environmental factors like excessive sun exposure can also play a significant role. Additionally, certain chemicals and chronic skin irritation or inflammation can increase the risk of developing skin cancer.

Genetic Predisposition

Some dog breeds are more susceptible to skin cancer than others. For example, breeds with light-colored or thin coats are at a higher risk for developing squamous cell carcinoma due to their increased vulnerability to sun damage.

Environmental Factors

Sun exposure is a well-known risk factor for skin cancer in both humans and dogs. Dogs that spend a lot of time outdoors without protection in sunny areas can develop skin cancer over time, especially in lightly pigmented and sparsely haired areas.

Lifestyle and Other Factors

The use of certain chemicals, exposure to carcinogens, and chronic conditions that cause skin irritation or inflammation can also contribute to the development of skin cancer. These factors can damage the DNA in skin cells, leading to cancer.

By recognizing the genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that increase the risk of skin cancer, pet owners can take steps to protect their pets and ensure their well-being.

Can You Prevent Skin Cancer?

While not all forms of skin cancer in dogs can be completely prevented, there are several measures that pet owners can take to significantly reduce their pets' risk. Understanding and implementing these preventive strategies can help protect dogs from developing skin cancer, or at least aid in catching it at an earlier, more treatable stage. Here are some key strategies for skin cancer prevention in dogs:

  • Provide Shade: Ensure your dog has access to shaded areas, especially during peak sun hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), to limit direct sun exposure.

  • Use Sunscreen: Apply pet-safe sunscreen, especially to areas with thin or no hair, such as the abdomen, nose, and ears, before going outdoors. Reapply as recommended, especially after swimming or excessive licking.

  • Annual Exams: Regular veterinary check-ups can help in the early detection of skin changes or tumors that may not be immediately noticeable to pet owners.

  • Dermatological Exams: For breeds at higher risk or those with a history of skin problems, more frequent dermatological exams may be recommended.

  • Balanced Diet: A diet rich in antioxidants can support skin health and potentially reduce the risk of cancer. Consult with your veterinarian for dietary recommendations tailored to your dog's specific needs.

  • Avoid Carcinogens: Reduce your dog's exposure to known carcinogens, including certain chemicals and toxins, both indoors and outdoors.

  • Know Your Breed's Risks: Some breeds are more predisposed to skin cancer than others. Being aware of your dog's specific risk can guide preventive measures and screening practices.

  • Genetic Counseling: For breeds at high risk of genetic-related cancers, discussing genetic counseling and testing options with your vet can provide insights into specific risks and preventive strategies.

  • Regular Skin Checks: Familiarize yourself with your dog's skin and coat to notice any changes early. Look for new growths, changes in existing growths, sores that don't heal, or any other unusual skin changes.

Implementing these measures does not guarantee that a dog will never develop skin cancer, but it can significantly reduce the risk and improve outcomes if cancer does occur.

What Are the Symptoms of Skin Cancer in Dogs?

The symptoms can vary depending on the type of skin cancer, its location, and its stage. Here are some key symptoms to watch for:

  • Unusual Skin Growths or Masses: Any new lump or bump on the skin, or a growth that changes in size, shape, or color, should be evaluated by a veterinarian.

  • Sores That Do Not Heal: Persistent sores that do not heal with time or that keep returning could indicate skin cancer.

  • Changes in Skin Color or Texture: Look for areas of skin that have changed color, become thicker, or have a different texture compared to the surrounding skin.

  • Loss of Hair: Unexplained hair loss, especially when accompanied by a growth or sore, may be a sign of skin cancer.

  • Itchiness or Pain: Tumors can sometimes be itchy or painful to the touch. Dogs may lick, scratch, or bite at the affected area.

  • Bleeding or Ulceration: Growths that bleed easily or appear ulcerated (open sore) should be checked by a veterinarian.

  • Swelling in Areas Near the Growth: This could indicate that the cancer is spreading or that the body is reacting to the tumor.

It's important to note that these symptoms can also be indicative of conditions other than skin cancer. However, any persistent or unusual changes in your dog's skin or coat should prompt a visit to the veterinarian for a thorough examination. 

How Skin Cancer is Diagnosed in Dogs

Diagnosing skin cancer in dogs involves a series of steps aimed at identifying the type of cancer and determining its stage. Here are the key steps involved in diagnosing skin cancer in dogs:

1. Veterinary Examination

The process starts with a thorough clinical history and physical examination by a veterinarian. The vet will ask about the duration and changes in any lesions or masses, and examine the dog's skin and overall health.

2. Visual Inspection and Palpation

The vet will visually inspect and palpate (feel) any lesions, lumps, or bumps on the skin to assess their size, shape, texture, and location.

3. Fine Needle Aspiration (FNA)

A fine needle aspiration may be performed to collect cells from the lump or lesion. This procedure is minimally invasive and can often be done without the need for sedation.

The collected cells are examined under a microscope by a veterinary pathologist to identify cancerous cells and suggest the possible type of cancer.

4. Biopsy

If the FNA does not provide a definitive diagnosis, or if a more detailed examination is needed, a biopsy may be performed. This involves removing a small piece of tissue from the lump or lesion, usually under sedation or anesthesia.

The biopsy sample is then sent to a laboratory where a veterinary pathologist examines the tissue more thoroughly to determine the type of cancer, its aggressiveness, and whether it has begun to spread.

5. Imaging Tests

Imaging tests may be recommended to check for signs of cancer spread to the lymph nodes, lungs, or other organs. The choice of imaging depends on the type of skin cancer suspected and its location.

6. Blood Tests

Blood tests, including a complete blood count (CBC) and biochemistry profile, are often performed to assess the dog's overall health and to detect any signs of cancer spread or organ involvement that could influence treatment options.

7. Staging

Once the type of cancer is identified, further tests may be conducted to stage the cancer, which involves determining how advanced it is and whether it has spread. Staging may involve additional imaging tests or biopsies of lymph nodes or other tissues.

Each step provides valuable information that helps in accurately identifying the type of skin cancer, assessing its stage, and planning the most effective treatment. 

Treatment Options For Skin Cancer in Dogs

Treatment options for skin cancer in dogs vary depending on the type, location, and stage of the cancer, as well as the overall health of the dog. Here are some of the primary treatment options:

1. HDR Brachytherapy (High-Dose Rate Brachytherapy)

HDR Brachytherapy is a form of internal radiation therapy that delivers high doses of radiation directly to the tumor site with minimal impact on the surrounding healthy tissues. This precision is achieved by inserting a radioactive source close to or within the tumor for a short period.

Unlike surgery, HDR Brachytherapy is less invasive, making it a preferred option for tumors in locations where surgery would be complex or could significantly impact the dog's quality of life.

2. Surgery

Surgery is often the first line of treatment for many types of skin cancer in dogs, especially when the tumor is localized and can be completely removed. The advantage of surgery is the immediate removal of the cancerous tissue, potentially offering a cure if the cancer has not spread.

3. Traditional Radiation Therapy

This involves using external beams of radiation to target and destroy cancer cells. It's often used when surgery is not possible or to treat areas where cancer cells remain after surgery.

4. Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy may be recommended for types of skin cancer that are known to spread to other parts of the body. It involves the use of drugs to kill cancer cells and can be used alone or in combination with other treatments.

5. Immunotherapy

This treatment leverages the dog's immune system to fight the cancer, using medications that stimulate the dog's immune response to target and destroy cancer cells.

6. Cryosurgery

For smaller tumors or in cases where traditional surgery is not an option, cryosurgery, which involves freezing the tumor cells to kill them, can be a less invasive alternative.

7. Photodynamic Therapy

This involves the use of light-sensitive drugs that are activated by specific wavelengths of light to kill cancer cells. It's particularly useful for treating superficial skin tumors.

Each treatment option has its advantages and suitability, depending on the individual case. A comprehensive evaluation by a veterinary oncologist is essential to determine the best treatment plan for a dog diagnosed with skin cancer, aiming for the best possible outcome while maintaining the dog's quality of life.

Recovery and Management For Skin Cancer in Dogs

A well-planned recovery and management strategy is crucial for helping your pet heal and maintain a good quality of life post-treatment. Here are key aspects to consider:

Post-Treatment Care

  • Follow Veterinary Instructions: Adhere strictly to any care instructions provided by your vet, including medication schedules, wound care, and activity restrictions.

  • Nutritional Support: A nutritious diet plays a vital role in recovery. Your vet may recommend a diet that supports healing and boosts your dog's immune system.

  • Pain Management: Pain relief is a critical component of post-treatment care. Your vet will prescribe pain medication if needed to ensure your dog's comfort.

  • Regular Check-ups: Scheduled follow-up visits are essential for monitoring your dog's recovery and catching any signs of recurrence early.

Managing Side Effects

  • Radiation and Chemotherapy Side Effects: These treatments can have side effects such as nausea, fatigue, or skin irritation. Work with your vet to manage these side effects effectively, ensuring your dog's comfort.

  • Wound Care: If your dog has undergone surgery, proper wound care is essential to prevent infection and promote healing.

Monitoring for Recurrence

  • Regular Skin Examinations: Regularly inspect your dog's skin for any new growths or changes in existing ones, and report them to your vet.

  • Veterinary Visits: Regular visits to the vet for check-ups can help detect any recurrence or metastasis of cancer early.

Lifestyle Adjustments

  • Sun Protection: For dogs prone to skin cancer, minimizing sun exposure and using protective clothing or pet-safe sunscreen can help prevent future skin cancers.

  • Environmental Adjustments: Modify your dog's environment to reduce exposure to carcinogens, such as tobacco smoke or certain chemicals.

Providing a loving and supportive environment for your dog can significantly enhance their recovery and overall well-being.

VetMed Treats Skin Cancer in Dogs

Our dedicated team of veterinary specialists uses advanced diagnostic tools to accurately identify the type of skin cancer, followed by a personalized treatment plan tailored to each dog's specific needs. We prioritize not only the effective treatment of cancer but also the overall well-being and quality of life of our canine patients, providing supportive care that addresses pain management, nutritional support, and emotional well-being throughout the treatment and recovery process.


Questions You've Asked Us About Skin Cancer in Dogs

Still have questions? Contact us here - we promise we'll answer them.

What does skin cancer on a dog look like?

Skin cancer on a dog can appear as a lump or bump on the skin, a mole that changes in size or color, an ulcerating sore, or any area of the skin that looks markedly different from its surrounding areas, including changes in texture or color.

How long can dogs live with skin cancer?

Is skin cancer in dogs fatal?

How quickly does skin cancer spread in dogs?

At what age do dogs get skin cancer?


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