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Skin Cancer and Your Pet

If you’re headed to the beach, you’ll probably bring your sunscreen to avoid a nasty burn or developing skin cancer, but what about your pet?

Skin Cancer

You might not give your loyal companion much thought because they are covered with hair, but you should be aware that skin cancer (or skin tumors) is far more common in pets than humans.  Believe it or not, but dogs are 35 times more likely to develop skin cancer than you!

Skin tumors, which may be cancerous, are the most common form of cancer found in dogs.  If caught early enough, many cases of dog skin cancer can be treated successfully.  If missed or left untreated, some types of dog skin cancer like  melanomas and mast cell tumors, can be fatal.  Not all types of skin cancer in cats and dogs are fatal or caused by the sun.  Both cats and dogs have particular areas that are more sensitive and susceptible to cancer causing elements.  The nose, the pads of the feet, and any areas where there is no hair is a potential danger zone.

Does this mean you shouldn’t let your cat sunbath in window?  No, cats will be cats and they need to get their time in the sun.  Dogs, especially dogs that are left outdoors most of the time, need sufficient shade to help reduce their chances of developing a life threatening form of skin cancer.

There are many types of skin cancers that affect cats and dogs but the most common ones are:

Malignant Melanoma
This form of skin cancer affects pigmented cells known as melanocytes.  Both cats and dogs quite often they are benign tumors that do not metastasize, which are called melanocytomas, and are found on areas of the body where there is hair.  Malignant melanomas typically occur on the mouth or mucous membranes with only a small percentage (approximately 10%) being found on parts of the body covered with hair.  The malignant form tends to grow extremely fast and are likely to spread to other organs such as the lungs or liver.  The cause is unknown although genetic factors seem to play a role.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma
This form of skin cancer occurs in the epidermis and is most often caused by sun exposure.  There may also be a connection between the papilloma virus and the development of squamous cell tumors.  Unlike  Malignant Melanomas, this form doesn’t spread however they can be aggressive and may lead to the destruction of skin tissue around the tumor.

Mast Cell Tumors
This is the most common form of skin cancer in dogs, which occurs in the mast cells of the immune system.  The cause is generally unknown however research may link to inflammation or irritants on the skin and genetic factors.

If these sound familiar, they should.  These are also the same cancers that affect and can kill humans.


Treatment of skin cancer in animals depends greatly on the type and location of the tumor.  Surgery is often the first step in most forms of skin cancer followed by chemotherapy.  DCA (sodium dichloroacetate) is also an effective tool in treating skin cancer cells.

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