Any dog parents will see a skin lesion or lump and immediately think of the word cancer.
However, in my experience as a veterinarian, many skin lesions or lumps are benign and usually nothing to worry about – it is therefore important to know the difference.
Similar to cancer in humans, the causes of skin cancer in dogs aren’t completely understood. Injury/trauma, sun damage, and certain illnesses may play a role in the development of malignant skin tumors, lesions, or lumps in dogs. Genetics also play their part and certain breeds are more susceptible to developing specific cancers.
What to Do if You Find a Suspicious Skin Lesion on Your Dog
Regularly check your dog for changes in their skin. Run your hands through their coat once a week and be sure to feel in all the creases and folds for any abnormal lumps or lesions. Make a note of the size of the lesion and the general appearance – a photograph can help you keep a diary in this way.
So, what happens if you find a skin lesion? There are two options: Monitor it for a while and see if it changes or take your dog to the vet for a checkup. We would always recommend the latter if you’re not sure, particularly if it looks sinister – more on how to tell a cancerous lump from a benign one next…
How Do You Know When a Skin Lesion or Lump Is Cancerous?
Cancer is the abnormal and rapid growth of previously healthy cells. Therefore, lesions or lumps that are growing rapidly or changing in appearance quickly may indicate a more sinister underlying cause.
Ulceration, redness, and a firm texture are all common properties of a cancerous lesion, but that doesn’t mean that every lump with these features will be cancerous.
Cancerous, or malignant, skin lesions and tumors can be small or large. They may itch or cause senior dog some discomfort. They may do neither.
You can never say whether a lesion is cancerous just by looking at it but there are some clues that can help raise suspicions:
- Rate of growth: Cancerous lesions tend to grow and spread more rapidly than those that are benign. They will grow into the surrounding healthy tissue, causing damage and inflammation. If a lesion doubles in size over the course of a few weeks, then it’s best to get it checked.
- Texture: Cancerous lesions and lumps are often harder and firmer to the touch.
- Shape: Due to their rapid and erratic growth, cancerous lumps tend to appear more irregular in shape.
- Color: Red, black or just generally ‘unhealthy’ looking lesions may be more malignant in origin.
- Discharge: Oozing or discharge from the lesion may occur due to damage and death of the tissue in surroundign areas. While any lump can develop secondary infection, sinister lumps are more prone to producing pus and bleeding.
- Irritation: A lump that is itchy or causing discomfort to your dog is more likely to be cancerous.
Skin cancer is more common in older dogs also, and a dog’s skin will naturally change with age so sometimes it can be hard to tell whether changes are due to simple old age or due to a more sinister underlying cause. Therefore, it’s important that your vet has a proper look to make the diagnosis – it’s a good idea to have any new lumps tested by your veterinarian
Skin Lesions or Lumps that Are Cancerous or Often Cancerous
Malignant skin tumors in dogs include mast cell tumors, mammary gland tumors, malignant melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Mammary gland tumors are not skin tumors as such, but they’re seen/felt in skin/tissue around your dog’s teats.
In healthy dogs, mast cells are the part of the immune system that releases histamine in response to allergies. Mast cell tumors are more often seen in middle aged and older dogs but can affect younger dogs too. These old dog lumps are not always malignant, but it’s impossible to know which ones are and which aren’t without a fine needle aspirate or biopsy.
WATCH: 3 Important Tips To Care For an Old Dog [VET VIDEO]
Mast cell tumors can vary a LOT in appearance; usually they’re a smooth, round growth visible on the skin. Other times they can look like a wart, or resemble a lipoma, and sometimes they are red in color. Learn more in our article about “Mast Cell Tumors: a Veterinarian’s Guide for the Dog Owner” (including images).
Melanoma tumors are dark and can be small, or large, flat, or raised. They can be either benign or malignant, so they shouldn’t be ignored.
If a dog has malignant melanoma, it’s usually an aggressive cancer which spreads throughout the body quickly, so the lesion needs to be surgically removed as quickly as possible. Only a veterinarian can tell the difference between a benign and a malignant melanoma by doing a biopsy.
Most malignant melanomas in dogs grow in/around the mouth or in other mucus membranes, but they can also be found in other areas.
3. Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinomas in dogs are fairly rare, and they are not as aggressive in terms of spreading as melanoma or mast cell tumors are.
These types of malignant tumors are usually found on areas of skin that are bare, or have little hair, and are more common in dogs with light colored skin. UV radiation from the sun can contribute to the development of these tumors.
Squamous cell tumors in dogs can be raised lumps or nodules, or flatter areas of ulcerated skin. They can sometimes resemble warts.
4. Mammary Gland Tumors
Mammary gland tumors can be cancerous or benign. They are often located next to or beneath the nipple and may extend between multiple mammary glands. They are firm and may have ulcerated skin overlaying or be abscessated/bleeding. Due to the lymphatic drainage that links mammary glands together, these tumors can spread quickly to the other mammary glands and even to the rest of the body. Therefore, quick surgical removal is recommended.
Skin Issues that Can be Cancerous (Although They are Most of the Time Benign
Warts on dogs are most often benign. Occasionally they can become cancerous so any wart that is a long-term issue, or that changes in color/size/look needs to be investigated by a vet.
See images below for example warts on dogs:
Also check out out article featuring Common Skin Lesions in Dogs.
How to Diagnose and Treat Cancerous Skin Lesions
The diagnosis of skin lesions will involve your vet taking samples and analyzing them under a microscope in a process known as histopathology. Histopathology is a very specialist discipline so don’t be surprised when your vet sends the samples away to an external laboratory for analysis.
Different sampling techniques can be performed including:
- Fine needle aspirate – a needle with syringe attached is inserted into the lesion and a sample is taken by pulling back on the plunger of the syringe. This aspirates some cells that can be placed on a microscope slide for analysis. The advantage of this technique is that may dogs will tolerate having it done consciously, however it won’t always achieve a diagnostic sample as only and pin prick sample is taken. Furthermore, not all lumps will readily release cells for aspiration, so this technique doesn’t always work.
- Biopsy – a biopsy is a wedge of tissue that is taken from the lesion and then sent for analysis. This is performed under a general anaesthetic and is the gold standard for getting a diagnosis on a skin lesion. Often the edge of the lesion will be taken to allow the histopathologist to compare normal to abnormal tissue.
Treating Malignant Skin Tumors in Dogs
The best way to treat malignant or cancerous lumps in dogs is to remove them surgically, and as quickly as possible. The smaller the lump the easier the surgery and the less tissue which must be removed. A malignant lump will often be removed with a margin of ‘normal’ looking tissue around it – this is to ensure that any microscopic spread of the cancer is also removed.
Disclaimer: This website's content is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your local veterinarian for health decisions. Learn more.
Acting fast also helps to reduce the chances of the cancerous cells metastasizing (traveling) into other tissues, organs, and lymph nodes. Sometimes radiation therapy, chemotherapy or other treatments are recommended in addition to removing the tumor. Your vet may wish to refer your dog to a specialist oncologist to aid in this treatment.
The exact treatment options will be decided by your vet and consider the size and location of the tumor and whether it has spread to other areas of the body.
Is skin cancer the only cancer that can cause skin lesions and issues?
While cancerous skin lesions can look very sinister, there are many other benign lesions that can look just as bad. These include dermatitis, hot spot lesions and ringworm. It’s therefore important to have any unusual lesions tested as they may not be cancerous at all. This article covers the most common types of skin lesion in dogs.
- Common Skin Lesions in Dogs
- Skin Cancer in Dogs
- What Steps can be Taken to Prevent Canine Skin Cancer?
- How Long Can dogs live with Skin Cancer?
- What is the Best Way to Care for my Dog who has Skin Cancer?
Disclaimer: This website's content is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult with your veterinarian to determine the best course of action. Read More.