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Dog Skin Cancer: An Overview of This Condition and How to Prevent It

Here's everything you need to know about skin cancer in dogs, including 4 steps you should take to prevent your pet from developing this condition.

Does your dog love to lounge outdoors in the sun? If so, he might be at risk for developing skin cancer. Here’s everything you need to know about dog skin cancer and how you can prevent your furry friend from contracting this life-threatening disease.

What Is Dog Skin Cancer?
If your dog develops skin cancer, you may begin to find raised black masses — called melanomas — on his skin. Thankfully, “melanomas in dogs typically have a favorable prognosis,” explains Dr. Nicole Leibman, the chief of oncology at Animal Medical Center in New York City. Nevertheless, you still need to have melanomas removed and biopsied, says Dr. Leibman, as this examination will determine whether or not the mass is indeed benign.

The most common type of skin tumor that can be found in dogs is a mastocytoma, or mast cell tumor. These masses are often malignant and can develop in places such as your dog’s skin and respiratory tract. According to Dr. Leibman, mast cell tumors are most prevalent in Labrador retrievers, boxers, pugs and golden retrievers.

There are various types of benign skin tumors as well. For instance, your dog may develop a lipoma. These types of tumors, which are generally found underneath your dog’s skin, feel smooth and movable. Unfortunately, lipomas can be hard to distinguish from more serious types of tumors such as soft tissue sarcoma. As a result, it’s important for you to have your vet evaluate any masses that you find on your pet.

For more information on the most common types of tumors, check out Tumors in Dogs: Is It Cancer?

What Causes Skin Cancer in Dogs?
According to Dr. Leibman, “most dogs have a very dense, thick coat that serves as a natural sunscreen.” Even so, your pet is more likely to develop skin cancer if he spends a lot of time outside sunbathing, she says. Your pet may also be at a higher risk if he has a pink nose, white coat or thin coat.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
According to Dr. Leibman, a mass may be itchy and uncomfortable for your furry friend. As such, you should monitor your pet for excessive scratching behavior.

Unfortunately, some dogs may never show any clinical signs of skin cancer. Nevertheless, Dr. Leibman recommends that you and your groomer inspect your dog’s skin once a month — preferably on the first of the month so that you don’t forget. When performing this inspection, you should “look for any hairless masses that are raised, pink, red or black,” she says. And you should “keep searching if you see any masses, as they can be present in multiple locations.”
 

How Can You Prevent Your Dog From Developing Skin Cancer?
Here are four steps you should take to protect your pet:

  1. Take Your Dog to the Vet for Regular Checkups
    In order to detect skin cancer early on, you must take your pet to the vet on a regular basis. According to Dr. Leibman, “even the most aggressive forms of cancers are much more easily treated if found early.”
     
  2. Apply Sunscreen to Your Pet’s Skin Before You Go Outside
    Your dog’s skin needs sun protection too! It’s especially important that you apply sunscreen if your pet has a light coat.
     
  3. Choose a Sunscreen That Doesn’t Contain Zinc Oxide
    If your pet accidentally ingests zinc oxide, he may experience severe anemia. As such, you should use sunscreen that doesn’t contain zinc oxide, says Dr. Leibman. She adds that human sunscreens with no zinc oxide are safe to use. Choose one that is quick-drying and water-resistant, such as Bullfrog sunscreen. Apply sunscreen to exposed areas of skin on your pet’s abdomen, legs, ears and nose. Avoid getting sunscreen in your dog’s eyes, as it may cause irritation.
     
  4. Take Your Dog to the Vet As Soon As You Find a Lump
    Masses and lumps on your dog’s skin should be evaluated by your vet as soon as possible. According to Dr. Leibman, your vet will likely determine a diagnosis by performing a quick and painless needle biopsy or cytology.

How Is It Treated?
The course of skin cancer treatment depends on factors such as your pet’s age, his overall health and the location of his tumors. If your pet has a localized, malignant tumor, he may need to undergo surgery to have it removed. But if your furry friend has larger, inoperable tumors, your vet may recommend radiation. In the unfortunate case that your dog’s cancer has spread, his treatment plan may include chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. Your vet may also choose to refer you to a veterinary oncologist, who can provide you and your dog with additional treatment options.

And check out these 12 Common Dog Cancer Symptoms.

Jennifer Gilbert is a freelance writer, mother of two beautiful children and pet owner to a playful Papillon named Kallie. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, baking, traveling and spending time with her family.

 *This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan. Neither Care.com nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.