5 Must-Know Facts About Skin Cancer and Pets

Cat basking in the sun
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May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, but it isn't just humans who need to be concerned about the pitfalls of too much sun exposure.

As a veterinary oncologist, I meet many vigilant pet owners who want to know how they can keep their pets healthy and identify cancer early on. The good news is that veterinarians can usually treat skin cancer successfully — as long as it's promptly identified.

Based on my professional experience, I've compiled five facts about skin cancer and pets that are sure to surprise you.

Pets Get Skin Cancer, Too

I'm always amazed at how many pet owners are shocked to learn that their pet has skin cancer. Both dogs and cats can develop skin cancer, and the common forms of skin cancers found in humans — melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinomas — are also seen in pets. Fortunately, basal cell carcinomas are relatively uncommon in animals, but melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma are all too common.

Skin Cancer That's Common in Pets — But Not People

Normally, mast cells play a role in allergic responses — they are responsible for the itching, swelling and redness in your skin when you contact an allergen. Although dogs and cats who suffer from allergies are not more prone to developing mast cell skin tumors, certain breeds of dogs — including Labrador Retrievers, Boxers, Pugs and Golden Retrievers — are predisposed to developing this type of tumor.

Owners of these dogs need to be especially vigilant about unusual skin masses, but any pet owner should be concerned about raised, hairless, pinkish-yellow masses, which could be mast cell tumors.

Mast cell tumors in cats look very similar to those in dogs. Because mast cells induce itching, swelling and redness, mast cell tumors may be red, itchy and periodically swell up and then disappear.

Melanoma of the Mouth

Our own doctors see every freckle as a potential melanoma. Melanoma also occurs frequently in dogs, but much less so in cats. Melanomas of the haired skin in dogs are usually benign — the bad ones occur in the mouth, on the gums and where the nails meet the toes. And although orange cats frequently develop freckles on their lips and gums, these flat accumulations of pigment are normal and known as lentigo simplex.

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