Understanding and Caring for Mast Cell Tumors in Dogs, by Deborah Shores, DVM

Flickr Photo by Bogdan Suditu
What is a Mast Cell Tumor?

Mast cells are specialized cells that are prevalent in all tissues, but are especially common in the skin, respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal tract. These cells contain histamine and heparin and are designed to respond to inflammation and allergies.

Mast cell tumors in dogs are caused when the mast cells replicate in abnormally high numbers, forming a lump or lesion. Mast cell tumors are also the most common skin cancer in dogs. 

Some Symptoms of Mast Cell Tumors?

Mast cell tumors vary greatly in appearance, size, shape, and location. They typically appear as soft, movable lumps under the skin or raised bumps on the surface. Mast cell tumors can change in size as chemicals in the mast cells are released.

Mast cell tumors occur more often in some breeds, including Boston Terriers, Bull Terriers, Pugs, Boxers, Labrador Retrievers, and Golden Retrievers.

What are the Treatment Options for Mast Cell Tumors?

Surgical removal is the most effective form of treatment for solitary mast cell tumors. Usually a large area around and underneath the tumor will be removed in an attempt to remove all the cancer cells. Ultimately, consult with your veterinarian to decide whether to proceed with surgery for multiple tumors or to use a different form of treatment. 

Radiation therapy is also commonly used, typically with tumors that are unable to be entirely removed with surgery. Dogs tolerate radiation therapy quite well and side effects are minimal.  

Chemotherapy is also a form of treatment for mast cell tumors, although much less effective than surgery or radiation therapy. Chemotherapy is usually used for mast cell tumors that have metastasized (spread) to other areas of the body. Chemotherapy can also be used to treat dogs that have multiple tumors, or who have tumors that are too large to remove via surgery. 

New ‘targeted therapies’ have recently been developed and several are approved by the FDA in the United States. These involve molecules called tyrosine kinase inhibitors. These molecules help to “turn off” gene mutations that are linked to the formation of mast cell tumors in dogs. Dogs that have this specific gene mutation may especially benefit as clinical trials showed that this treatment increased the average survival time from 182 to 417 days. (1) 

Clinically, mast cell tumors are graded on a scale of I to III, with grade III being the most serious. Grade I tumors are generally cured with a simple surgical removal. Dogs with grade III tumors typically have metastasis (spreading of the tumor) to other areas of the body, resulting in only a small percentage to live longer than a year despite aggressive treatment. 

What are Alternative Treatment Options for Mast Cell Tumors?

It is important to talk to a local holistic veterinarian for holistic or complementary treatment options. Some dogs with mast cell tumors can be successfully put into remission using classical homeopathy alone. Other possibilities include intravenous Vitamin C therapy, medicinal herbs and essential oil therapy, such as frankincense or Tsuga oil. (2,3)

As with all types of cancer, minimizing your dog’s intake of carbohydrates can be beneficial. Nutrition is extremely important for the well-being of dogs being treated for all types of cancer. For more information, please take a look at our nutritional recommendations and information in our Cancer in Dogs article. We also recommend an omega-3 fatty acid supplement to support your dog’s proper body metabolism, such as Elimay Supplements’ Omegas product. 

Elimay Supplements offers holistic nutritional support with helpful products including Chemo Detox and Onco Care.Chemo Detox is created for dogs specifically undergoing chemotherapy.  It contains a special blend of herbs that support cleansing and elimination of toxins. Onco Care is designed for combat abnormal cell growth (cancer) with herbs that help to support healthy cell growth. 

(1)    Kent, M. 2011. Mast Cell Tumors: Diagnosis and Treatment. Canine Medicine Symposium Proceedings. Veterinary Information Network.
(2)    Palmquist, R. 2012, May 10. Holistic Options for Mast Cell Tumor in Dogs. Veterinary Information Network Vet-to-Vet Alternative Medicine Message Board. 
(3)   Palmquist, R. 2013, June 21. Intravenous Vitamin C Dosing for Canine Mast Cell Tumor. Veterinary Information Network Vet-to-Vet Alternative Medicine Message Board. 

- Graduate of Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine
- Originally from Georgia, has practiced in South Carolina and Virginia (dogs, cats and non-human primates).
- Special interest in nutrition, ultrasonography, complimentary veterinary medicine
- Recently lost 8-year old Australian Shepherd, "Danger" to liver cancer
- Has two cats

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