Oral Cancers in Dogs

chocolate lab dog smiling oral cancer

Oral tumors in dogs are relatively common. According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS), “benign and malignant tumors of the oral cavity account for 3-12% of all tumors in cats and 6% of all tumors in dogs.”1

Does My Dog Have an Oral Tumor?

Unfortunately, when it comes to tumors in the mouth, most are malignant. The oral cavity includes more than just your pet’s teeth and gums. It also includes lips, the hard and soft palate (roof of the mouth), upper and lower jaw, cheeks, tongue, and the floor of the mouth. Oral tumors—both cancerous and non-cancerous—can form in any part of your pet’s mouth.

Oral melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and fibrosarcoma are common oral tumors in dogs. Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common oral tumor seen in cats.2

Signs and Symptoms of Oral Cancer in Dogs

There are no definitive causes of oral cancers; therefore, early detection is vital. Brushing your pet’s teeth every day not only helps keep your pet’s teeth and gums healthy—it will also familiarize you with your pet’s mouth. By brushing their teeth regularly, you are more likely to notice if something looks or smells different. Annual dental exams by a veterinarian are also important. During professional dental cleaning by a veterinarian, your pet will be anesthetized. This allows your veterinarian to take full mouth dental radiographs (x-rays) and thoroughly examine and clean your pet’s teeth above and below the gum line. Any tumors or growths forming in the mouth will be seen by the veterinarian. Any and all growths should be checked by a veterinarian for testing. Cancerous tumors can metastasize, or spread, into other parts of the body if left untreated.

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Diagnosis and Staging for Oral Tumors in Dogs

Along with bloodwork, your veterinarian may do a fine-needle aspiration or a biopsy of the tumor to confirm whether it is cancerous. If the sample taken is confirmed as cancer, the next step is to determine the stage of cancer. Your pet may need radiographs or a CT scan of the head or chest area. This is done in order to see if cancer has spread to other parts of the body. During this time, your primary care veterinarian may refer your pet to a board-certified veterinary oncologist for the tests and to consult on treatment options. Veterinary oncologists are trained to diagnose and treat cancers in pets.


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Treatment Options for Dogs with Mouth Tumors

A cancer diagnosis can feel devastating, but the good news is that your pet has options. There are typically two methods for treating oral cancers and tumors in pets.

Oral Surgery

In many cases, surgery can be performed to remove the tumor if possible. Surgery requires that margins around the tumor be taken out along with the tumor. The extent of surgery depends on the type of cancer and location of the tumor, and often requires removing part or all of the jaw, teeth, and/or surrounding bone.

Advanced Radiation Therapy

If surgery is not an option or the entire tumor cannot be removed, the pet may be a good candidate for advanced radiation therapy, or stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS). Due to its ability to deliver high doses of radiation with sub-millimeter precision, SRS is an ideal option when a complete resection of the tumor through surgery is not possible. For example, Pet Hero Snickers was a 12-year-old Shih Tsu that was diagnosed with advanced oral squamous cell carcinoma. Neither surgery nor conventional radiation therapy was an option for him due to the location of his tumor. Snickers received SRS treatment, which cured his cancer, giving him three more years with his family.

Combination Surgery and Radiation Treatment

In some cases, a combination of treatment options is used. The animal may need to undergo surgery for removal of the oral tumor followed by radiation therapy or chemotherapy. In cases of oral melanoma, immunotherapy or vaccines may also be used to treat the cancer. Oral tumors come in many types and location, so the prognosis is dependent on the individual pet’s specific situation. There are new advancements like SRS and immunotherapy developing rapidly in veterinary medicine, so we recommend that you explore all treatment options with a board-certified veterinary oncologist.

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Questions? We are here to help.

If your pet has been diagnosed with cancer, contact our Pet Advocates at (833) PET-HERO. Our team members are ready to help answer your questions.  

1, 2 “Oral Tumors,” ACVS.org, https://www.acvs.org/small-animal/oral-tumors