Skin Cancer in Pets


Bryan Huynh

- Updated February 23, 2024

Key Takeaways

  1. Skin cancer in pets refers to the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells, with various types manifesting differently.
  2. Factors like genetics, sun exposure, age, and breed predispositions can influence the risk of developing skin conditions in pets.
  3. Early detection is crucial for effective treatment, which can range from surgical removal, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, to advanced treatments like immunotherapy.
  4. Prevention strategies include limiting sun exposure, regular veterinary check-ups, and being aware of breed-specific risks.
  5. Investing in pet insurance can help manage potential costs associated with diagnosing and treating skin cancer, ensuring the well-being of pets.
Skin Cancer in Pets

Skin cancer, a term that elicits fear and concern among pet owners, is an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the skin. Much like in humans, this disease can manifest in various forms in our furry companions, making it essential for owners to be informed and vigilant. The prevalence of skin cancer in pets, especially among certain breeds, has been on the rise, underscoring the importance of regular veterinary check-ups and early detection. It's worth noting that just as pet ownership brings joy, it also comes with responsibilities, one of which is ensuring the health and well-being of our beloved animals. This is where pet insurance steps in. Investing in a comprehensive pet insurance policy can offer peace of mind, covering potential costs associated with diagnosing, treating, and managing skin cancer. By staying informed and taking proactive measures, owners can greatly enhance the quality of life for their pets.

Types of Skin Cancer in Pets

  1. Malignant Melanoma Malignant melanoma is a type of skin cancer that arises from the melanocytes, the cells responsible for producing melanin which gives color to the skin, eyes, and hair. In dogs, especially, this aggressive form of cancer is often characterized by its darkly pigmented appearance, though it can also be amelanotic (lacking pigment).

Common locations for malignant melanoma in pets include the mouth, lips, footpads, and, occasionally, the nail bed. Due to its invasive nature, early detection and swift treatment are paramount.

Treatment options vary based on the tumor's location and stage, but they often include surgical removal. In cases where surgery might not be feasible or when the disease has advanced, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or even newer methods like immunotherapy may be considered.

  1. Squamous Cell Carcinoma Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) is a common and often malignant form of skin cancer that originates from the squamous cells, which form the surface of the skin and line various parts of the body. In pets, SCC typically presents as firm, raised, and sometimes ulcerated lumps or plaques. They may appear wart-like in nature, but unlike benign growths, they have a tendency to grow rapidly and invade surrounding tissues.

Commonly affected areas in pets include the belly, nose, edges of the ears, and the pads of the feet – areas frequently exposed to the sun. Sunlight is a known factor in the development of SCC, especially in animals with light-colored or thinly-haired skin. Early diagnosis is crucial, as the tumor can become aggressive if left untreated.

Treatment primarily involves surgical excision of the tumor. For tumors that are not easily operable or in advanced stages, radiation therapy and chemotherapy might be recommended.

  1. Basal Cell Tumors Basal Cell Tumors are neoplasms that originate from the basal cells – the deepest layer of the epidermis. In the world of veterinary oncology, these tumors are generally considered benign, meaning they're less likely to metastasize or spread to other parts of the body. Characterized by their smooth, round, and often hairless appearance, these growths can range from firm to cystic.

Pets, particularly dogs, may develop these tumors anywhere on their bodies, but they're most frequently found on the head, neck, and shoulders. While they grow slowly and are typically non-aggressive, it's essential not to ignore them.

The primary treatment for Basal Cell Tumors is surgical removal, ensuring clean margins to prevent recurrence. In instances where surgery might not be the ideal choice, cryotherapy – freezing the tumor – can be an alternative. As with any health concern, a prompt consultation with a veterinarian is vital to determine the best treatment approach and ensure our pets continue to lead healthy, vibrant lives.

  1. Mast Cell Tumors Mast Cell Tumors (MCTs) are among the most common and potentially serious skin cancers seen in dogs. Originating from mast cells, which play a pivotal role in allergic reactions, these tumors can be unpredictable in behavior. Their appearance can be deceiving; MCTs can manifest as small, inconspicuous bumps, but they can also resemble more aggressive lesions. Some may be itchy, leading to further irritation when scratched or bitten by the pet.

Common sites for MCTs include the limbs, abdomen, and chest, but they can essentially arise anywhere on the body. Given the variable nature of these tumors, prompt diagnosis is of the essence.

Treatment often involves surgical removal with wide margins to ensure complete excision. In cases where the tumor is deemed high-grade or has spread, additional treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation may be considered. The diversity and potential severity of MCTs underscore the importance of regular veterinary check-ups and immediate attention to any new or changing skin growths on our pets.

5.Lipoma Lipomas are benign fatty tumors, a common finding in our canine companions, particularly as they age. These soft, squishy growths are composed of mature fat cells and are usually encapsulated, which means they are contained within a thin, fibrous capsule. Characteristically, lipomas are painless and moveable under the skin, often eliciting little more than a curious glance from pet owners.

They can crop up virtually anywhere on the body, but are most frequently found on the belly, chest, and limbs. While these tumors are non-cancerous and often harmless, it's essential to differentiate them from liposarcomas, a malignant form of fatty tumor. This distinction emphasizes the importance of a veterinary evaluation for any new lump or bump on a pet.

In most cases, lipomas don't require treatment unless they hinder movement or cause discomfort due to their size or location. If removal is deemed necessary, surgical excision is the most common treatment. With a lipoma, the adage "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" holds true; regular check-ups and early detection remain the best defense for our furry family members.

6.Soft Tissue Sarcomas Soft Tissue Sarcomas (STS) represent a group of malignant tumors that arise from the connective tissues of the body, encompassing a broad category of growths, each with its unique origin, such as fibrosarcomas from fibrous tissue or liposarcomas from fatty tissue. Despite their diverse origins, STS generally share certain characteristics. They often appear as firm, deep-seated lumps beneath the skin, sometimes giving an illusion of being movable, but are typically anchored to deeper structures.

While they can develop anywhere, common locations include the limbs, especially the rear legs, and the trunk. Due to their invasive nature, early detection and intervention are crucial. Treatment primarily involves surgical removal with wide margins to ensure no trace of the tumor remains. Given the depth and location of some STS, complete removal can be challenging, making post-operative radiation therapy a valuable adjunct in certain cases. In scenarios where the tumor cannot be fully excised or has metastasized, chemotherapy may be a viable option.

7.Histiocytoma Histiocytomas are benign skin tumors commonly seen in younger dogs, typically those less than three years of age. Originating from the Langerhans cells, which are a type of immune cell, these tumors are often round, hairless, and can appear reddish or inflamed. They're fast-growing, which can be alarming for pet owners, but their rapid appearance is often matched by an equally rapid disappearance.

Most frequently, these growths emerge on the head, ears, and limbs, though they can present anywhere on the body. One of the hallmarks of histiocytomas is their spontaneous regression; many will resolve on their own without medical intervention. However, if the tumor causes discomfort, is frequently scratched or bitten, or doesn't show signs of regression after several weeks, surgical removal may be recommended. Always consult with a veterinarian when discovering any new growth on a pet. With histiocytomas, while they're generally benign, it's crucial to ensure they're correctly identified and differentiated from more serious conditions.

8.Sebaceous Cysts and Sebaceous Gland Tumors Sebaceous cysts and sebaceous gland tumors are growths associated with the sebaceous glands, which produce the body's natural oils. Sebaceous cysts, often filled with a cheesy or waxy material, are benign and result from blocked oil glands. They can appear as smooth, round lumps beneath the skin, sometimes rupturing and releasing their contents. On the other hand, sebaceous gland tumors, while usually benign, can occasionally be malignant. They may present as small, wart-like growths or larger nodules, often found on the eyelids, head, neck, and torso. While these conditions are generally non-aggressive, any new or changing growth warrants a veterinary evaluation. Treatment for sebaceous cysts often involves draining or surgical removal if they become recurrent or problematic. Sebaceous gland tumors might require surgical excision, especially if there's any suspicion of malignancy.

Causes and Risk Factors

Understanding the underlying causes and risk factors for skin conditions in dogs is essential for proactive pet care. Genetics play a significant role, with certain breeds being predisposed to specific skin issues due to their genetic makeup. Sun exposure, especially in dogs with thin or light-colored coats, can increase the risk of skin conditions, highlighting the importance of sun protection during peak hours. Age is another determining factor, with older dogs often being more susceptible to various skin ailments compared to their younger counterparts. Furthermore, certain breeds have a natural predisposition to specific conditions, making breed-awareness crucial for pet owners. Lastly, previous injuries or scars can sometimes become sites for the development of skin issues, as compromised skin can be more vulnerable. Regular veterinary check-ups, coupled with an understanding of these risk factors, empower pet owners to provide the best possible care for their beloved canine companions.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

A keen eye and early detection are pivotal in addressing skin conditions in dogs. Pet owners should be vigilant in recognizing abnormal growths or lesions, which might appear suddenly or evolve over time. Notably, changes in the size, shape, or color of moles can be indicative of underlying issues and warrant immediate attention. Ulceration or bleeding from any skin growth is a cause for concern and should prompt a veterinary visit. When it comes to diagnosis, veterinarians are equipped with an array of diagnostic tools to pinpoint the exact nature of the skin condition. A biopsy, where a small tissue sample is extracted and examined microscopically, is often a definitive method to identify the type of growth. Imaging, including X-rays and ultrasound, can provide insight into the depth and spread of certain conditions. Blood tests further aid in gauging the overall health of the dog and detecting any systemic issues. With these tools and a proactive approach, pet owners and veterinarians can work hand-in-hand to ensure the health and well-being of our cherished four-legged friends.

Treatment and Prognosis

Addressing skin conditions in our canine companions requires a multifaceted approach, tailored to the specific diagnosis and the individual needs of the dog. Surgical removal is often a frontline treatment, aiming to excise tumors or growths entirely, providing both relief and valuable information on the condition's nature. For more aggressive or deep-seated conditions, radiation therapy may be employed to target and destroy cancerous cells, while chemotherapy offers a systemic approach, especially beneficial if there's concern about cancer spread. Immunotherapy, a cutting-edge treatment, harnesses the dog's own immune system to combat certain cancers. The prognosis following treatment is influenced by various factors. The type of cancer, its stage at diagnosis, and the location and size of the tumor all play roles in determining the potential outcomes. As always, early detection and prompt intervention, coupled with the expertise of a trusted veterinarian, are paramount in navigating these challenges and ensuring the best possible outcome for our loyal and beloved pets.

Prevention and Tips for Pet Owners

The saying, "prevention is better than cure," holds especially true when it comes to the health of our canine companions. One of the primary preventive measures is limiting sun exposure, especially during peak hours. Just as in humans, prolonged sun exposure can lead to skin issues in dogs. For those sunny outings, consider using pet-safe sunscreens or protective clothing to shield your dog from harmful UV rays. Regular veterinary check-ups are indispensable, providing opportunities for early detection of any skin anomalies and ensuring they're addressed promptly. Additionally, pet owners should familiarize themselves with breed-specific risks. Certain breeds are naturally predisposed to specific skin conditions, so being aware can help in early recognition and intervention. By adopting these preventive measures and staying informed, pet owners can play a proactive role in safeguarding the health and happiness of their furry family members.


The journey to ensuring the health and longevity of our canine companions is paved with vigilance and proactive care. At the heart of this journey lies the significance of early detection. Recognizing even the subtlest of changes can make all the difference in outcomes and treatments. Regular veterinary check-ups stand as cornerstones in this endeavor, offering invaluable opportunities to catch and address potential issues before they escalate. To all devoted pet owners, the call is clear: remain observant, prioritize those routine vet visits, and always advocate for the well-being of your furry friend. In doing so, you not only strengthen the bond you share but also champion a life filled with joy, health, and the unparalleled companionship dogs bring.

About The Author

Bryan Huynh

Bryan Huynh

Product Tester & Writer

Bryan Huynh is a dedicated Product Tester & Writer. Just as insurance has your back, Bryan works to review and inform you about the wide range of insurance products available, ranging from business, auto, health, home, pet, to life insurance.

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