Watch Out For Skin Cancer In Dogs: Be Proactive With These Tips
There are some sobering statistics that every dog person has to face. Cancer is the leading cause of death in domestic dogs older than ten years old. Further, an average of sixty-five million dogs are diagnosed with cancer each year and one in four dogs will die from it.
Skin cancer in dogs, including malignant melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and mast cell tumors, are the most common type of tumor a dog gets. These stats come from the Animal Cancer Foundation, one of the best sources for this type of data.
We aren't trying to scare you. However, we are trying to wake you up to the fact that while skin cancer in dogs is quite common, there are ways you can beat the alarming odds we report above.
To give your dog the best possible chance at beating cancer, detecting it early is absolutely critical! Taking your dog to the vet on a regular basis is one way to increase the odds of early detection.
The other way is to thoroughly check your dog yourself on a regular basis, and if you find anything abnormal, take your dog into the vet immediately. Doing what you can to prevent skin cancer in your dog is another way to be proactive. Below, we give you three detailed tips we hope you put to good use.
Proactive Tip #1: Shop Around For a Good Vet
Not all vets are created equal. Some vets really take their time and do a thorough examination, the type of examination needed to detect skin cancer early.
Other vets always seem to be in a rush and overbooked with patients. If you're going to pay for regular vet visits, you should expect to get a thorough exam by the vet during every visit.
You should also take note of how the vet examines your dog.
- Do they take the time to carefully feel with their fingers every nook and cranny of your dog's body?
- Are they exploring the underparts fully?
- Do they spend adequate time looking at the mouth, both inside and out?
- Are they shy about lifting up the tail and taking a good look at the anus and the genital region?
A good vet will not be shy about such things because he or she will know how important it is to check these areas for signs of skin cancer and other problems, although they may joke a bit with the dog parents while they do it to put them more at ease.
If you move to new place, or you get a dog for the first time, it can be challenging to find a vet that will really take the time to do a thorough exam.
However, it is worth the effort and extra money to do so as this may very well save your dog's life in the future.
Here's our advice on the best way to go about it.
1. Narrow down the possibilities by asking around and reading online reviews. This should at least eliminate the worst of the worst off your list.
2. Make a general appointment with at least three vets within a one to three month period.
4. Without telling the vets that you're shopping around, take your dog to these appointments and compare notes.
5. Pay special attention to how the vet examines your dog.
Yes, you'll have to pay for two or more extra vet visits but it's well worth the extra expense if you can afford it and it may save you thousands of dollars in the future due to early detection.
6. Pick a vet based on this personal experience and then set up regular appointments.
Proactive Tip #2: Examine Your Dog For Signs Of Skin Cancer Yourself
You are your dog's first line of defense because you are with your dog more than anyone else. Further, your dog feels more comfortable with you so you'll be able to examine him or her in a much more intimate way.
Checking for signs of cancer on your dog does not have to seem like an "examination" to your dog.
Instead, turn the exam into a bonding experience with lots of sweet talk, petting, treats, and scratching in all the right places!
You can even combine it with fun activities like a game of tug-o-war or a walk at a favorite place your dog doesn't get to go to every day.
PRO TIP: When examining your dog, make sure your fingers and hands are warm, clean, and completely dry.
The Visual Exam
First, you want to conduct a visual inspection of every part of your dog's body, preferably in an area flooded with natural light. If natural light is not available, add some extra light, like a desk light, to the overhead light of a room.
Look very closely at her mouth because skin cancer in this region, especially melanomas, are quite common.
This is a good time to give a treat.
You can also check this area thoroughly when you brush your dog's teeth.
Take a good look at the ears too, outside and inside, shining a flashlight inside.
The anus and genitals are also prime areas to concentrate on since skin lesions are common in these areas too.
It's good to have another person distract your dog at this point. If not, then use a toy or a chew bone to distract your dog.
If possible, get your dog to lay on his back so you can view the genital region more fully.
In all of these areas, you are looking for:
- anything else abnormal
While your dog is on her back, take a good look at the stomach area, the legs, the paws, between each toe, and where the legs meet the trunk of the body.
For female dogs, pay particular attention to the nipples for any signs of crustiness or discoloration.
Once your visual exam is done, you can start on your tactile exam.
The Tactile Exam
Starting with the head and working your way back, you want to explore every nook and cranny of your dog with your fingers.
As you run your fingers along your dog's body very slowly, you want to use a light touch so you can more easily feel any bumps, lumps, or abrasions.
If you think you feel something odd, slow down and explore that area more fully.
Part the fur, if needed, and shine a flashlight on the area.
While you should not get alarmed if you find something, you also don't want to dismiss anything as "Oh, that's just a little bump."
Take a note of it, watch it daily for changes, and report your findings to your vet ASAP.
He or she may decide to biopsy the area to understand more fully what's going on under the outer skin and determine the best treatment plan.
Proactive Tip #3: Protect Your Dog From UV Radiation
One of the most common causes for skin cancer in dogs, especially squamous cell carcinoma, is exposure to UV radiation, particularly the UVA band of UV radiation.
Regardless of breed, short-haired dogs, particularly those with light colored skin, are more susceptible to skin cancer caused by UV radiation than long-haired dogs with dark skin.
However, all dogs, regardless of hair length or skin color, can get skin cancer and all dogs need protection from UV radiation.
The most vulnerable areas on a dog's body to sun exposure is his nose, ears, belly, and groin.
The best way to protect these areas are to apply sunscreen lotions MADE SPECIFICALLY FOR DOGS (do not use human sunscreen as it can be highly toxic to dogs!).
Sunscreen sprays work best on areas with denser fur as they can be more easily worked down to the skin with your fingers.
Sun shirts for dogs with a UPF50+ rating work even better for the back, neck, chest, and stomach areas, assuming you get one that fits your dog properly.
Please see our article, "Dog Sunburn: Tips Avoiding Cancer and Sunburn in Dogs," for more information and specific recommendations on sunscreens and sun shirts for dogs.
The Biggest Advantage To Being Proactive
There's a good reason we're encouraging our readers to be proactive and watch out for skin cancer in dogs.
If you catch it early, your vet may be able to surgically remove the cancer, and the tissue around the tumor, BEFORE it metastasizes... i.e. spreads into the lymph nodes and vital organs.
If you can catch it BEFORE this happens, your dog will have a good chance of full recovery without radiation and or chemotherapy.
Further, even if your vet thinks a round of radiation and or chemotherapy is needed as a precaution, your dog will have a much higher chance of survival if you catch the cancer before it spreads.
So, we encourage you to stay on top of it and be proactive!
Don't be timid about changing vets if your current vet, or your first vet, doesn't do a thorough exam.
Examine your dog yourself, both visually and with your fingers, as frequently as possible.
If your dog does not tolerate it well, even with sweet talk, treats, and distractions, try doing the visual exam and the tactile exam at different times.
Finally, make sure you protect your dog from UV radiation as much as possible... helping to avoid skin cancer in dogs.