Canine Skin Cancer by Deborah Shores, DVM

Flickr Photo by: McPig
What is Canine Skin Cancer?

Although you may not think of dogs suffering from skin cancer due to their coat, unfortunately skin tumors are the most common tumors found in dogs. Fortunately, not all skin tumors are cancerous and many cases, if caught early enough, can be successfully treated. 

There are multiple types of canine skin cancer. We recommend that you find a local oncologist who will determine what kind of skin cancer your dog has and the best treatment plan. 

What are the Types of Canine Skin Cancer?
  • Mast cell tumors: Mast cell tumors are one of the most common types of skin tumors. For more information, please refer to this article: Understanding and Caring for Mast Cell Tumors
  • Malignant melanoma:  Similarly to people, malignant melanoma is a type of skin cancer that affects the pigmented cells (melanocytes). Most malignant melanomas are found on the mouth or mucous membranes. Although they can develop on hair-covered areas, this is less common. Malignant melanomas are generally quite aggressive and metastasize (spread) quickly to other parts of the body. 
        Dogs can also develop benign tumors in pigmented cells, called melanocytomas. These tumors are not cancerous               and do not metastasize. 
  • Squamous cell carcinoma:  This is a form of skin cancer that originates in the epidermis. This type of tumor is characteristically malignant and aggressive. Breeds that are most commonly affected by squamous cell carcinoma are Scottish Terriers, Pekingese, Poodles, Boxers, Dalmatians, Beagles, and Whippets. 

    The symptoms of Squamous cell carcinoma include sores that are crusty or bleeding that persists despite treatment, as well as tumors.
  •  Basal cell tumors:  Basal cell tumors originate in one of the deepest skin layers, the epithelium. These tumors are most commonly found in older dogs, particularly Poodles and Cocker Spaniels. 

    The symptoms of a basal cell tumor typically appears as a raised mass under the skin, near the dog’s neck and shoulder area. Basal cell tumors can be either benign or malignant. Fortunately, less than 10 percent of these tumors are malignant.
  • Lipomas: Lipomas are noncancerous tumors. For more information on lipomas, please refer to our previous article: How Do You Know If Your Dog Has Canine Lipoma (Fatty Tumor)?
  • Mucocutaneous Plasmacytoma: This is cancer of the plasma cells. Plasma cells are a form of white blood cells, and produce antibodies which aid your dog’s immune system. Mucocutaneous plasmacytomas are most commonly found in mixed-breed dogs and Cocker Spaniels. 

     These tumors typically develop on your dog’s chest and legs, as well as mouth and ears. 
  • Cutaneous Lymphoma: Cutaneous lymphoma is a type of cancer that originates white blood cells (lymphocytes), affecting the skin. Your dog’s skin will appear dry, flaky, itchy, and inflamed. As it progresses, the patches will become moist and ulcerated. This type of lymphoma progresses slowly and can sometimes be misdiagnosed as a skin allergy or infection. Cutaneous lymphoma may also affect the mouth, including the gums, lips, and roof of the mouth.             
What is the Cause of Canine Skin Cancer?

Although the cause of cancer is not explicitly known, we do know that cancer can arise from multiple factors. With skin cancers particularly, sun exposure is considered a major contributing factor. Other factors include genetic predispositions, environmental causes, and nutrition. For more information on the possible causes of cancer, please refer to our previous article: Cancer in Dogs

What are the Treatment Options for Canine Skin Cancer?

Because of the many different forms of skin cancer, consulting your veterinarian and local oncologist is absolutely essential for a clear diagnosis and treatment plan. 

Surgery is often the standard treatment for many forms of skin cancer, including malignant melanomas and squamous cell carcinomas. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy is also used, sometimes in combination with surgery and/or radiation. 

For malignant melanoma, combined therapy using surgery, gene therapy and the melanoma vaccine is showing promising results- increasing survival times and reducing rates of metastasis (spread).(1) 

Fortunately, if the cancer is caught early and treatment is started, the prognosis for dogs with skin cancer is typically very good. 

What are Alternative Treatment Options for Canine Skin Cancer?

It is extremely important to speak with a holistic veterinarian who can provide an alternative treatment plan pertinent to your dog’s individual case. Homeopathy, homotoxicology, acupuncture and herbal therapy possibilities can vary depending on the type of skin cancer.

As with any type of illness, nutrition is exceedingly crucial. We recommend minimizing your dog’s intake of carbohydrates.(2) Proper nutrition, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acid supplementation can improve the blood flow within the skin, helping it to heal itself after surgery or radiation.

There are also a variety of quality supplements available that contain a blend of herbs that can support your dog’s immune system. If your dog has undergone chemotherapy or radiation therapy, a detoxification supplement can be beneficial in supporting your dog’s natural cleansing process. The herb Amla, commonly known as Indian Gooseberry, is a strong natural antioxidant. The herb Guduchi is known for protecting your dog’s body against the negative effects of chemotherapy by increasing the effectiveness of white blood cells. 


(1)  Finocchiaro, L., Glikin, G. 2012 December. Cytokine-Enhanced Vaccine and Suicide Gene Therapy as Surgery Adjuvant Treatments for Spontaneous Canine Melanoma: 9 years of Follow-Up. Cancer Gene Ther. 19(12): 852-61.

(2)  Silver, R. 2013. Integrative Oncology: Blending the Best of Conventional with Evidence-Based and Supportive Complementary Therapies. Holistic Veterinary Medicine Club Symposium. Veterinary Information Network.X

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