Learning More About Dogs with Mast Cell Tumors

Mast Cell TumorLearning that your precious pet has a form of cancer can be overwhelming. For many of us, our dogs are a much-loved member of our family. They love us unconditionally and they become a valued part of our daily lives. The statistics are not encouraging as they suggest that one out of every three dogs will get cancer. No one wants our dogs to have mast cell tumors, so let’s become informed about this particular type of cancer in dogs.

However, the prognosis for dogs with mast cell tumors can be quite good, so it’s best to stay calm, do some research, ask questions and follow the advice of your Vet.

My gorgeous and treasured companion, Sadie, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, developed mast cell tumors just before she turned eleven. Her first few tumors were small and innocuous but later on, she developed a faster-growing tumor on her back which would bleed at intervals.

Mast Cell tumors (MCT) are the cancer of a type of blood cell and they are the most common malignant skin tumor in dogs, although they can also affect other areas in the body. As much as 20% of skin masses in dogs could be MCTs. They can range in severity from the very low-grade tumors to the more ominous higher-grade tumors that are more likely to spread or metastasize.

The good news for dogs with mast cell tumors is that with early detection, many of the tumors, especially the lower grade ones can be successfully treated. For Sadie, the suggested treatment was to remove all tumors surgically even though she was already twelve years old. The surgery was considered risky because of her age but she pulled through with her usual confidence, surprising the Vet with her energy after the surgery.

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Chemotherapy was the suggested follow up to the surgery, but at her age, my decision was not to put her through any more than the surgery.  While chemotherapy in dogs can use the same drugs as in human chemotherapy most dogs do not develop severe side effects.  So, don’t be afraid of that option. Often dogs that do have side effects can have these managed, so they don’t impact their quality of life.

At any rate, Sadie lived happily to the grand old age of fourteen with her trademark enduring determination and sturdiness that belied her age. The average life span of a ridgeback is ten to twelve years of age, so she had a long life.

After going through this with Sadie, I wanted to look forward and become more informed about Mast Cell Cancer in dogs so that I would be able to possibly avoid it or at the very least see it early.

What causes Mast Cell Tumors in dogs?

There is no easy answer to what may cause a dog to develop MCT’s. The exact cause is not yet known but it’s believed that the development of MCTs may be the result of a combination of factors, most of which are beyond the control of owners, such as hereditary or environmental factors. It is widely believed that there are genetic mutations that could be involved in MCTs.

Mast Cell Tumor Post Surgery

Do MCTs affect all breeds of dogs?

Some breeds are pre-disposed to MCTs suggesting that owners of these varieties should be on the look-out for any unusual masses or lumps all the time. The breeds that may be more susceptible are: Beagles, Shar Peis, Boston Terriers, English Bulldogs, Pugs, Labrador, Cocker Spaniels, Schnauzers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Golden Retrievers, Weimaraners and Boxers.

Research also shows that although these breeds may have the highest incidence, they are also more likely to have lower grade tumors while older mixed breeds are more likely to have higher-grade tumors.

How to prevent Mast Cell Tumors in dogs

There is some evidence to suggest that overweight dogs are more likely to develop MCTs as is the case with many other health conditions.  Therefore, it is recommended to keep your pet at a healthy weight with a healthy diet and exercise.

Symptoms of Mast Cell Tumors

This is where it gets tricky! Sometimes the only symptom may be a mass or lump, while in other cases the mast cells may cause other symptoms if they release histamine. This can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, skin redness, swelling or loss of appetite.

If, unfortunately, the cancer has reached an advanced stage, and has already spread to other organs then dogs with mast cell tumors may also suffer from internal hemorrhage or fluid accumulation. This could lead to depression and lethargy, pale gums or even rapid breathing.

Symptoms can differ. In the case of my Sadie, she reached an advanced stage with obvious fluid accumulation (in one of her legs) but she never lost her appetite.  She definitely wasn’t depressed, and she was the undisputed leader of my large fur family till the end!

Be Vigilant as Early Detection is Key

As dog owners, we can do our part by being vigilant. Regular checks could be crucial in identifying any unusual masses or lumps. Vets recommend running your hands over your pet’s body, feeling for any irregularities on the surface of the skin and visually checking all areas from their face to the underside of their paws. Additionally, take note of any change in fur direction or any unusual swelling or redness as these are often signs in dogs with mast cell tumors.  The National Canine Cancer Foundation has developed a useful guide, based on valuable input from Vets, outlining how to “Check Your Dog”. A good way to remember to check is to have a specific date like the 14th of every month.

Experts agree that older pets are more at risk for MCTs so it may be safe to assume that

if your dog is older and of mixed breed or one of the susceptible breeds you should be even more attentive to the possible symptoms.  Discovery of early warning signs should prompt a trip to the Vet for a quick diagnosis and a treatment plan.

Dogs with mast cell tumors can still live a long and happy life in many cases as proven in my experience with my stubborn but “oh so lovable” ridgeback, Sadie.

Links to related information:

Canine Cancer Library: Mast Cell Cancer

10 Early Warning Signs of Cancer In Dogs

Common Chemotherapy Side Effects