Skin Cancer in Dogs: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Early Detection

Published by
min read

Find food that fits your pet’s needs

Find a dog food that fits your pet’s needs

Find a cat food that fits your pet’s needs

You've heard of skin cancer in people, but can dogs get skin cancer? What does skin cancer look like on a dog? Dogs can develop several different types of skin cancer and, like in people, each one can have different signs. Fortunately, most skin growths in dogs are benign, ranging from fatty tumours (lipomas) to sebaceous cysts.

Can Dogs Get Skin Cancer?

Yes. According to the Royal Veterinary College, there are various types of skin cancer that can affect dogs. These include:

  • Mast cell tumours. The most common tumours in dogs, mast cell tumours affect a type of white blood cell called a mast cell, which can cause cancerous growths on or under the skin. 
  • Carcinoma. This cancer can affect various different skin cells and is known by the type of cell affected. Examples include basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
  • Melanoma. This cancer affects the pigment cells that determine the colour of your dog’s skin. 
  • Lymphoma. This cancer originates in the lymphatic system, and is known as cutaneous lymphoma when affecting the skin.

While there's no clear answer about what causes some dogs to get skin cancer, Blue Cross describes the following risk factors:

  • Sun exposure and sunburn. 
  • Compulsive licking of a specific area of skin. 
  • Genetics and breed.

Blue Cross explains that dogs with light skin, thin coats, or little fur are at the highest risk of skin cancer overall. Some breeds are also more likely to get specific types of cancer than others. For example, beagles, boxers and bulldogs are among the breeds most at risk from mast cell tumours according to the PDSA

Likewise, benign growths are more common in some breeds; Labradors are more susceptible to lipomas, while poodles are especially prone to developing cysts. However, cancer can affect any dog breed, and it is possible to mistake some cancerous growths for benign ones. For that reason, it’s important to stay vigilant and discuss any changes in your dog’s skin with your vet.

What Does Skin Cancer Look Like in Dogs?

Can dogs get skin cancer? Yes. So, what does skin cancer look like on a dog? Blue Cross says that skin cancer can take on many different forms, ranging from lumps and bumps to scabs and warts. Marks or growth can also vary in colour. 

For example, most types of skin cancer look like lumps in the skin, and they may or may not have fur. However, malignant melanoma may appear as a black or brown mark, and may be raised, like a mole, or flat. Cutaneous lymphoma, on the other hand, might present as patches of red, flaky skin, appearing similar to ringworm. Both cutaneous lymphoma and malignant melanoma can quickly become fatal and require prompt diagnosis and treatment. 

If you find a lump on your dog, how much should you worry? As a general rule of thumb, any lump on your dog's skin may be cause for concern, especially if it is new or fast-growing. Say you pet your dog in that one favourite spot all the time. One day, you notice a small lump. Later, you notice that it’s grown in size. This could be a sign of trouble. Keep in mind, though, that some cancers can be firm and others can be soft, so the feel of the growth isn't a reliable indicator. 

Another sign to watch for is a mass that seems to be bleeding or oozing for no reason. Your dog may or may not be bothered by this, though, so their level of interest or distress isn't generally a reliable indicator of a cancerous growth.

Diagnosing Skin Cancer in Dogs

When you bring your dog to the vet with concerning skin symptoms, the vet will likely perform a needle aspiration. This process involves sticking a needle, such as those used for vaccinations, into the mass to extract a sample of cells. Your vet can then examine the cells under a microscope, or may send the sample to a pathology specialist. Sometimes a few cells on a slide aren't enough for a diagnosis, so your vet may need to perform a biopsy on your dog or surgically remove the entire mass to send off for testing. This is the most accurate way to get a diagnosis.

Cropped portrait of unrecognizable male veterinarian examining white Labrador dog at vet clinic, copy space

Treatment for Skin Cancer in Dogs

Receiving a cancer diagnosis for your dog is never easy. Along with all of the emotions you may be feeling, you're likely wondering about next steps. What treatment is available? How can you best support your dog? 

Fortunately, many types of canine skin cancer can be cured with surgical removal. If the cancer is aggressive or has spread to other parts of the body (“metastasised”), your vet may also recommend chemotherapy or radiation treatment too. It’s important to have an open discussion with your veterinarian so that you understand all of the treatment options available to you and your dog.

Early Detection Is Key

While it's not possible to completely prevent skin cancer in dogs, early detection can make a huge difference in helping your dog recover faster — and possibly live longer. To stay on top of your dog's health, give them a thorough petting session at least once a week, looking for any suspicious lumps, bumps or marks. Consider it a doggy massage! For older dogs who have many lumps, keep a chart or diagram of where and how large they are. That way, if one starts growing rapidly, you'll quickly be able to tell. 

Check with your vet about any new lumps or marks. It can sometimes be difficult to relocate a tiny lump once you have your dog in the vet's office, so consider trimming the surrounding fur or even circling the lump with a pen.

Can dogs get skin cancer? While the answer is yes, you can rest easy knowing that most skin cancers in dogs are treatable. The most important thing is to monitor your dog regularly and raise any concerns with your vet promptly.

Contributor Bio

Dr. Karen Louis

Dr. Karen Louis

Dr. Karen Louis was earning a PhD in Molecular Cell Biology and changed to a career in veterinary medicine. She graduated from the University of Illinois and has been in practice almost 20 years. She owns a small animal practice near St. Louis, MO, where she combines house calls with managing her unique low-stress clinic. A published author and award-winning nature photographer, she rescues senior dogs from local shelters and spoils them in their final years.