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The Top 5 Skin Cancers in Dogs | Blooming Culture Pet

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Dog Skin Cancer

Skin Cancer in Dogs

The Top 5 Skin Cancer Types in Dogs, including
 Sun Protection for Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Cancer is the leading cause of death in dogs, and since early detection can be the deciding factor in the outcome, never ignore any lump or bump on your pet.

Summer might be coming to a close, but that doesn't mean that our dogs are any less susceptible to getting skin cancer. Squamous Cell Carcinoma is a type of skin tumor that may be attributed to sun exposure and is the second most commonly diagnosed type of tumor in dogs, right after Mast Cell Tumors. 

Our four-legged companions enjoy the outdoors, love playing at the park, taking long walks, or going to the beach. Exercise and fresh air are essential components of a healthy life, but can dogs, like humans, experience sun exposure’s harmful effects? Yes, as you can see in the photo above, a friend’s dog Tanner did get a sunburn from too much sun exposure.

Even though their bodies are primarily covered in fur, dogs are also susceptible to harmful UV rays. The most vulnerable dogs have fair skin, light noses, and thinned or missing hair. Your dog’s nose, ears, top of the head, and abdomen are usually the areas most at risk.

Genetics plays a factor in any cancer for people and pets, but we can both do preventative measures and support. People should apply 1.5t- 2t of sunscreen to their faces daily, not including the recommended reapplication throughout the day or other high at-risk areas such as our ears, neck, chest, and hands. 

But what can we do to protect our dog from the sun? While there are many options currently on the market, we will briefly break down what we found and how they work, including why some veterinarians don’t recommend using human sunscreen on your dog. 

First, let’s discuss the 5 Top Skin Cancers in Dogs and common Treatments.

Skin is the largest organ in dogs and humans, so it will come as no surprise that skin and soft tissue tumors are the most common sites for tumor growth. According to the American Kennel Club, skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed type of tumor found in dogs, with an incidence rate of 1437 per 100,000 dogs/year

Factors like genetics, breed, sun exposure, environmental chemicals, viruses, and skin abnormalities can all play a part in dogs being more likely to get skin cancer. Fortunately, not all skin tumors or growths are malignant, and abnormalities detected early can be easier to treat. 

There are several skin abnormalities that are considered to be benign. A few common benign skin conditions are fatty deposits and cysts, skin tags, or warts. Any skin problems should always be checked by your veterinarian and biopsied to confirm they are benign.

Malignant Melanoma

Canine melanoma is a common skin disease in dogs, and there are two types: Malignant and Benign. While the most commonly diagnosed melanoma in dogs is benign, malignant melanoma can cause severe problems if left untreated. It is thought that malignant melanoma can, in part, be caused by UV exposure, but not as much as in humans since it can present in other places than the skin. Malignant melanoma also can spread quickly to other organs by the process of metastasizing. 

Certain breeds like Miniature and Standard Schnauzers and Scottish Terriers are more likely to develop malignant melanoma. And some research suggests that male dogs are more susceptible to getting melanoma than female dogs. Malignant melanomas are most commonly found on lips, mouth, and nail beds, followed by neck, scrotum, and head areas. 

Nail bed melanomas could present with swelling or loss of toenails and limping. Malignant melanoma of the mouth often looks like gray or pink lumps. Oral melanomas could also prompt increased salivation and loss of teeth. Other skin areas can display raised bumps with ulcers. 

Treatment of Melanoma

Your veterinarian will likely use a small needle to extract cells from the tumor to test them. If the results are inconclusive, a biopsy may be necessary. If the tumor is malignant, the most common way of treating it is by completely removing it. This can be tricky in areas like the mouth because the veterinarian will have to remove the cancerous tumor in its entirety without affecting or damaging the jaw. Other treatment options include radiation, chemotherapy, and medications. 

Your veterinarian will choose the best treatment based on your dog’s overall health, breed, age, and tumor location. According to the National Canine Cancer Foundation, 50% of paw and nail bed melanomas spread to other parts of the body, while oral melanomas are likely to spread to lymph nodes and lungs. Your veterinarian will likely consider this statistic while picking a treatment plan. 

Mast Cell Tumors

According to the National Canine Cancer Foundation, mast cell tumors are the most common tumors found in dogs. This type of cancer has been linked to skin irritants, inflammation, and genetic factors, although more research needs to be done. Mast cells are mostly located in connective tissues near the skin, nose, and mouth. They release histamine, which is a compound responsible for allergic reactions in dogs. It is not known why some of these become cancerous, but they appear as masses that range in size from a millimeter to more than three centimeters. They may become itchy and cause your dog to scratch more than usual. 

Treatment of Mast Cell Tumors

Like with melanoma, the veterinarian will use a small needle to collect cells from the tumor. A more extensive biopsy may be necessary to determine a more accurate result. If a mast cell tumor diagnosis is determined, it will be required to remove the tumor surgically. A follow-up with chemotherapy or radiation will also likely be recommended. 

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous Cell Carcinoma originates in the outer layer of the dog’s skin and predominantly affects older dogs. Some breeds like Bloodhounds, Basset Hounds, and Standard Poodles are at a higher risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma. The tumors usually appear as raised white bumps or patches and can be firm to the touch. They can generally be found on the head, buttocks, lower legs, and abdomen. 

Treatment for Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Cryosurgery, or freezing technique, is one method of removing squamous cell carcinoma. It is especially effective in smaller growths. Larger tumors are more likely to require surgical removal. If a large skin area is affected by surgical removal, it may require skin grafts for reconstruction. 

As with other skin cancer types, surgery would likely be followed up by radiation or chemotherapy to ensure the complete removal of cancerous cells. As with most cancers, early detection is vital in successful treatment. 

Histiocytic Cell Tumors

Histiocytic cells are a type of skin cells. When they rapidly grow and spread, they can form tumors, which are called histiocytic cell tumors. These types of tumors usually affect dogs under three years of age. The most susceptible breeds are Scottish Terriers, Bulldogs, Greyhounds, Boxers, Boston Terries, and Chinese Shar Peis. 

This type of cancer can manifest in different parts of the body, including the skin. Unfortunately, the diagnosis could sometimes be tricky as symptoms may present as overall depression, lethargy, and weight loss. 

As with other types of skin cancer, treatment will likely consist of surgical tumor removal, followed by a combination of chemotherapy and radiation.


This type of tumor is usually found in connective tissues of the skin and beneath the skin. Fibrosarcoma usually affects older dogs, with the median age being ten years old. Very rarely, an aggressive fibrosarcoma can affect younger dogs. Fibrosarcoma is believed to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There is a small amount of evidence that fibrosarcoma can be associated with injection sites in dogs

Fibrosarcoma tumors have varied appearances and tend to re-grow after removal. However, the chances of fibrosarcoma tumors spreading or metastasizing are low. After examination, your veterinarian will send a tumor sample to a pathologist to determine whether it is a low-grade or a high-grade tumor. This gradation represents the rate of cell division within the tumor and thus its seriousness. 

Based on the results, your veterinarian will devise an appropriate treatment course that best suits your dog. 

How To Protect Your Dog From Skin Cancer

Although some cancers are caused by genetics and other predispositions, there are still specific steps you can take to protect your dog from certain types of skin cancers. 

Some skin cancers can be prevented by limiting your dog’s exposure to the sun and providing protection with sunscreen or sun-protective clothing. Lighter color protective clothing is best, as it will keep your dog the coolest. Avoiding close shaving off your dog's fur can also help minimize your dog’s UV ray exposure.

There is some debate about sunscreen safety for dogs. Dog-specific sunscreens are best to use, as they don’t contain zinc, which can be toxic to dogs in high amounts. However, many dog-specific sunscreens on the market tend to be more of a "protective layer or coating," not necessarily sunblock. So ultimately, limiting sun exposure during peak times, providing a shaded area, or putting UV protective clothing on them can help. The nose and ears of a dog, just like people, can be very vulnerable to the sun, and a dog formulated sunscreen is best for these areas. Always test out the sunscreen on a small patch of skin first, as your dog could have an allergic reaction to the product. 

Early detection is also crucial in the successful treatment of skin cancers, so it is essential to take your dog yearly to their veterinary examination or if you find anything that looks or feels abnormal.

Other possible signs of skin cancer in dogs are weight loss, loss of appetite, prolonged stiffness, loss of stamina, foul body odor, and sores that do not heal. Keeping an eye out for these signs could help you notice skin cancer early, dramatically increasing positive treatment outcomes.

Dog Friendly Sunscreens


1. Emmys Best Pets

2. Happy Pet

3. Epi-Pet

4. Bodhi Dog

5. Lucky Pup

6. Warren London

7. Petkin

8. My Dog Nose It

9. Petkin

There is some conflicting advice on what is safe to use on your dog for sun protection when discussing sunscreens. Zinc Oxide is a popular mineral ingredient alternative to chemical sunscreens for people. Still, many experts say that it is not safe for your dog, and you will notice that none of the dog-friendly sunscreens we listed contain it. Experts believe that Zinc Oxide can be toxic in large quantities to your pet and can make them sick if ingested. However, renowned veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker disagrees and believes using Zinc Oxide is safe for your dog. Here Dr. Becker Explains what to look for in sunscreen for pets.

Dr. Becker lists these as her top ingredients avoid when applying sunscreen to your pet:

  • Para Amino Benzoic
  • Octyl Salicylate
  • Avobenzone
  • Oxybenzone
  • Cinoxate
  • Padimate 
  • Dioxybenzone
  • Phenylbenzimidazole
  • Homosalate 
  • Sulisobenzone 
  • Menthyl Anthranilate
  • Trolamine 
  • Salicylate 
  • Octocrylene 

*When looking at sunscreen ingredients, check the highlighted active ingredients and look at the inactive ingredients they contain.

How sunscreens work is essential to know when choosing one for your dog. Mineral sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are two naturally occurring minerals that can block the sun's UVA and UVB radiation from being absorbed into your skin, meaning they are considered broad-spectrum. In comparison, chemical sunscreens are instead made of synthetic ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate (you'll see these listed in the "active ingredients" section at the top of the label) and work by sinking into the skin, absorbing harmful UVA and UVB rays, and converting them into heat.

Most dog-friendly sunscreens do not use chemicals or minerals to block or absorb the sun, but that is what makes them “dog safe.” Instead, they use ingredients that work by creating a protective moisture barrier between your dog’s skin and the sun, which only creates an SPF of apx. 15 and not waterproof.

To be transparent, we have not tried out any of the dog-friendly sunscreens from our list. Our dog Paddington has a lot of hair but did undergo surgery for a skin graph. The surgery has healed nicely, and in an area that is not easily accessible for him to lick, we opt to use chemical and mineral sunscreens made for people to get the desired level of UVA and UVB protection we want for him. We also make sure to have a pop-up tent to shade him if we will be at the beach or relaxing outside for an extended period. 

We find that sunscreens formulated for babies or the face tend to be gentler and fragrance-free. Remember, these are only our suggestions, and we are using them on areas Paddington does not lick. If we needed to apply sunscreen to his nose or a place he can reach, we would use dog-friendly sunscreen in those specific areas. Some of our favorite sunscreens we use on Paddington are: 

Using sunscreen for your dog can be used in conjunction with specific clothing made to block UV rays. Baxter Boo has many options for dog clothing and accessories to aid in blocking the sun.

While all skin cancers can come from genetic predispositions, environmental circumstances, certain breeds turn out to be more susceptible to them than others. It is essential to have accurate information about skin cancer in dogs and be aware of what to look for. Pick a sunscreen that you have researched and feel comfortable using on your dog, along with any other methods needed to protect them from harmful UV rays. If you notice any change in your dog’s skin, including lumps and bumps, seek medical advice from your primary veterinarian or a veterinarian that specializes in dermatology.

*The information in this blog is not meant to treat, diagnose, or cure any illness your dog may have. Please discuss any health concerns directly with your veterinarian.