Dog Mouth Cancer

dog mouth cancer

Dog mouth cancer is the 4th most common dog cancer. There are several different types of mouth cancer. 

Types Of Dog Mouth Cancer

Dogs can get several different types of mouth cancer, including …

  • Melanoma (the most common)
  • Squamous cell carcinoma (second most common)
  • Fibrosarcoma (10-20% of cases)
  • Benign dental tumors (5% of dog oral tumors)*

*Even though they’re called benign, these tumors can still have malignant effects if they’re not treated. Veterinarians often recommend treatment with aggressive surgery and radiation, just like other mouth tumors. 

Mouth tumors can appear anywhere in the mouth, so you may see them on the gums, tongue, lips, the roof of the mouth (the palate), or the upper part of the throat (the pharynx).

It’s important to keep an eye on your dog’s mouth for any unusual growths. The sooner you find them, the more treatable they’ll be. 

Causes Of Dog Mouth Cancer

The causes of mouth cancer are little known, except for cases where dogs who’ve had radiation therapy to treat benign dental tumors.  Some oral carcinomas and carcinomas develop years after these treatments.

Other Risk Factors For Dog Mouth Cancer

Male dogs get more mouth cancer than females, and white dogs seem prone to squamous cell carcinomas of the tongue. Squamous cell carcinomas of the tonsils are more likely in dogs who live in cities. 

Breeds predisposed  to dog mouth cancer include the Doberman Pinscher, Golden Retriever, Gordon Setter, Irish Setter, Schnauzer, Cocker Spaniel, German Shepherd and Scottish Terrier.

Most dog mouth cancers occur in dogs around 11 years old. 

Dog Mouth Cancer Symptoms

Dog mouth cancers are one of the many reasons to look after your dog’s dental health. Dog owners who find mouth cancers early are often those who brush and check their dogs’ teeth regularly. Otherwise people tend not to look in their dogs’ mouths very much, so they don’t catch early signs or changes in the mouth. 

Some other signs of dog mouth cancer are …

  • Bad breath
  • Drooling
  • Difficulty or pain with eating (which may lead to weight loss)
  • Pawing at the mouth
  • Bleeding/bloody saliva
  • Loss of teeth
  • Facial swelling

Because dog mouth cancers can spread quickly, the earlier you spot them, the better the outcome. 

Dog Mouth Cancer Diagnosis

Biopsy is the most common way to confirm a dog mouth cancer diagnosis and determine the type of tumor. 

Your veterinarian may run additional tests to find out if the cancer has spread into nearby tissues or bone.  These may include … 

  • Blood work
  • Urinalysis
  • Dental x-rays
  • MRI or CT scans
  • Ultrasound
  • Lymph node aspirate

We usually caution against needle aspirates to avoid disrupting cancer cells and causing further spread. However, if your vet suspects there’s metastasis into the lymph nodes, they will recommend aspiration. You can’t tell by just looking at or feeling the lymph nodes, because they are often normal sized and not enlarged. There are several lymph nodes near the mouth, so your vet may want to check several different sites. 

Dog Mouth Cancer Staging

This is the official staging of dog mouth cancers. The prognosis is worse in the higher stages.

Stage I: Tumor smaller than 2 cms in diameter, with no metastasis to regional lymph nodes.

Stage II: Tumor 2 – 4 cms in diameter, with no metastasis to regional lymph nodes.

Stage III: Tumor over 4 cms in diameter, and/or metastasis in one or more regional lymph nodes.

Stage IV: Tumor any size, with distant metastasis.

Conventional Treatments For Dog Mouth Cancers

Treatment options depend on whether the cancer has infected the bone and/or other local tissues at diagnosis. 

Because mouth cancers are fast-spreading, surgery is usually the first step of dog mouth cancer treatment. In some cases part of the jaw may need to be removed as well. Although this is distressing to you as an owner, dogs usually tolerate these surgeries well, and pain is significantly reduced. 

If you opt for surgery, do your research and find the most experienced oral surgeon you can. It’s important to remove the entire tumor, because there’s a high likelihood of recurrence. Recurring tumors involving 2nd or 3rd surgeries are much less successful.

Radiation therapy is often the next step and may extend life expectancy. Radiation can also be given without prior surgery. However, radiation does come with side effects like gum inflammation, skin burns, eye problems, and difficulty eating. Dogs are usually anesthetized for radiation, to make sure they’re completely still, so your dog will also need to recover from anesthesia. 

There may be other, less common, delayed side effects like dry eye, fistulas, occasionally bone damage, and cataracts if the tumor was near the eyes.

With radiation therapy there’s also a high risk of acute reactions due to die-off of tissues in the path of the radiation beam. Most of these happen within a few days of treatment, usually involving skin or mouth sores, dry eye or corneal ulcers. 

CyberKnife Radiosurgery

Unfortunately there are very few facilities offering CyberKnife treatment, but if you live near one it’s a good idea to explore this option instead of traditional radiation. CyberKnife surgery is extremely precise and aims very narrow beams directly to the tumor, which greatly lowers the overall dose as well as the number of treatments.

Chemotherapy is rarely used for dog mouth cancer unless the cancer has spread to distant parts of the body, including lymph nodes.

Oncept® Melanoma Vaccine
This a DNA melanoma vaccine used as immunotherapy for oral melanoma in dogs, usually after surgery to debulk the tumor. The goal is to target microscopic metastasis. Some studies show improved results with the combination compared to surgery alone.

Read Dr Ian Billinghurst’s recommended questions to ask your veterinary oncologist before deciding on conventional cancer treatments. 

Natural Dog Mouth Cancer Treatments

Natural treatments for any kind of cancer can be used alongside or instead of conventional treatment options.  Most holistic practitioners will aim to treat the whole patient and support the body’s own ability to heal.  The goal will be to use non-invasive treatment to preserve your dog’s quality and enjoyment of life for as long as possible. 

This starts with whole food nutrition, avoiding kibble and starchy foods as well as synthetic supplements, and using therapies like herbs or homeopathy, medicinal mushrooms, CBD, curcumin or turmeric, mistletoe, ozone and sometimes essential oils. 

Holistic practitioners will usually only use pharmaceutical drugs or surgery if required for pain management. When it comes to surgery, Dr Judy Jasek reminds us …

Removing a tumor does nothing to treat cancer. It just removes the visual indication of its presence. As a dog owner, it can be a comfort to see a tumor disappear. But if we don’t address the underlying issues that caused it … the disease will persist and manifest elsewhere in the body. “

However, as we mentioned earlier, mouth tumors can be very painful so removal may be needed. 

If you choose natural therapies, always find a practitioner experienced in managing dogs with cancer. 

Click on the link to read about natural cancer treatments.

Decision-making about cancer treatments will always be difficult.  Your dog’s quality of life should be a key factor … remaining pain-free and able to play, eat and enjoy his activities. Don’t forget to consider the stress of surgeries and frequent vet visits for radiation treatments as you balance the pros and cons of conventional treatments.

Dog Mouth Cancer Life Expectancy 

Prognoses vary widely depending on the type of dog mouth cancer and its location in the mouth, as well as the treatment.

Many holistic practitioners don’t like giving prognoses. Instead their goal is to prolong life expectancy and especially quality of life for your dog. 

Conventional prognoses will also vary widely depending on whether you choose surgery alone, or surgery plus radiation. The use of both treatments can double survival times in squamous cell carcinomas (SCC), for example, because they’re responsive to radiation. Dr Damien Dressler (aka the Dog Cancer Vet) reports that complete removal of SCC tumors can offer survival times as long as a year or more, radiation alone 12-16 months, but when surgery and radiation are combined, survival times can be as long as 36 months.

Fibrosarcomas have median survival times of 1 year with aggressive surgery or radiation therapy, but 18 months if both are combined. 

For oral melanomas, the life expectancy varies with the Stage. Median survival times with treatment are 17 to 18 months for stage I, 5 to 6 months for stage II, and 3 months for the advanced stage III. 


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