Melanoma Cancer in Dogs

icon May 18, 2024

Melanoma is a type of cancer that arises from melanocytes, the pigment-producing cells found in the skin, mouth, eyes, and other parts of the body. In dogs, melanoma can be a particularly aggressive form of cancer, requiring early diagnosis and treatment to improve the chances of a favorable outcome. This article will delve into various aspects of melanoma in dogs, including its types, symptoms, stages, and treatment options.

Melanoma Cancer in Dogs

What is Melanoma Cancer in Dogs?

Melanoma in dogs is a type of cancer originating from melanocytes. These cells produce melanin, the pigment responsible for the color of skin and eyes. While some melanomas are benign, malignant melanomas can be highly aggressive and prone to metastasis.

Types of Melanoma:

  1. Cutaneous Melanoma: Occurs on the skin, ranging from benign to malignant.
  2. Oral Melanoma: Found in the mouth, typically malignant and aggressive.
  3. Ocular Melanoma: Occurs in the eyes, which can be either benign or malignant.

Risk Factors:

♣ Breed Predisposition: Breeds like Scottish Terriers, Schnauzers, and Golden Retrievers have higher risks.

♣ Age: Older dogs are more susceptible to developing melanoma.

♣ Pigmentation: Dogs with darker pigmentation are at higher risk for certain types of melanoma.

Melanoma Skin Cancer in Dogs

Melanoma skin cancer in dogs commonly appears as a dark, pigmented mass on the skin, although it can also be non-pigmented. These tumors can develop anywhere on the body but are frequently found on the head, neck, and limbs. Cutaneous (skin) melanoma can range from benign to highly malignant.

Melanoma Skin Cancer in Dogs

Diagnosis and Symptoms:

♣ Appearance: These tumors often present as dark, raised growths on the skin.

♣ Growth Rate: Rapid growth and ulceration are common signs of malignancy.

♣ Metastasis: Malignant melanomas have a high propensity to spread to other organs, including the lungs and liver.

♣ Diagnosis: Diagnosis is typically made via fine needle aspiration, biopsy, and histopathological examination.


The prognosis for skin melanoma in dogs varies significantly depending on the tumor's malignancy. Benign melanomas are often curable with surgical excision, while malignant melanomas require more aggressive treatment and carry a poorer prognosis.

Melanoma Mouth Cancer in Dogs

Oral melanoma is one of the most common malignant tumors in dogs and can be highly aggressive. These tumors frequently occur in the gums, lips, and tongue and can rapidly invade surrounding tissues.


  • Oral Mass: The most noticeable symptom is often a visible mass within the mouth.
  • Bad Breath: Halitosis (bad breath) is a common sign.
  • Difficulty Eating: Dogs may show reluctance to eat or may drop food from their mouths.
  • Bleeding: Unexplained oral bleeding can occur.
  • Pain: Signs of discomfort or pain while eating or when the mouth is touched.


♣ Clinical Examination: Veterinarians typically start with a thorough oral examination.

♣ Imaging: Radiographs (X-rays) and CT scans help determine the extent of the tumor.

♣ Biopsy: A tissue biopsy is essential for definitive diagnosis.

Prognosis and Treatment:

The prognosis for oral melanoma depends on the size, location, and extent of metastasis at the time of diagnosis. Treatment often involves a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy.

Melanoma Cancer in Dogs’ Eyes

Ocular melanoma can occur in various parts of the eye, including the uvea (iris, ciliary body, and choroid) and the conjunctiva. While some ocular melanomas are benign, others can be malignant and pose a significant threat to the dog’s health and vision.


  • Visible Mass: A pigmented mass may be seen within the eye.
  • Eye Discoloration: Changes in the color of the eye or visible blood vessels.
  • Vision Problems: Signs of impaired vision or blindness.
  • Discomfort: Symptoms of pain or irritation, such as squinting and excessive tearing.


♣ Ophthalmic Examination: A detailed examination by a veterinary ophthalmologist.

♣ Ultrasound: Ocular ultrasound can help determine the tumor's size and location.

♣ Biopsy: A biopsy may be performed to confirm the diagnosis and determine malignancy.


Treatment options for ocular melanoma include surgical removal of the tumor, enucleation (removal of the eye) if the tumor is extensive, and adjunctive therapies like radiation.

Related: Cat Eye Colors

Melanoma Cancer in Dogs: Symptoms

The symptoms of melanoma in dogs can vary widely depending on the tumor's location. Common signs to watch for include:

Lumps and Bumps:
Unusual growths on the skin or in the mouth.

Pigmentation Changes:
Darkening or unusual coloring of the skin, mouth, or eyes.

Weight Loss:
Unexplained weight loss can be a sign of systemic involvement.

Behavioral Changes:
Reluctance to eat, play, or exercise.

Pain or Discomfort:
Signs of pain, especially when the tumor is touched.

Stages of Melanoma Cancer in Dogs

The staging of melanoma in dogs helps determine the extent of the disease and guides treatment decisions. Staging typically involves:

Stage I:
Tumors are small and localized without lymph node involvement.

Stage II:
Larger tumors without lymph node involvement.

Stage III:
Tumors with regional lymph node involvement.

Stage IV:
Tumors with distant metastasis to organs such as the lungs and liver.

Diagnostic Tools:

1. Physical Examination:
Thorough physical check-up by the veterinarian.

2. Imaging:
X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs to detect metastasis.

3. Lymph Node Biopsy:
To check for regional spread.

4. Blood Tests:
To assess overall health and organ function.

Treatment for Melanoma Cancer in Dogs

Treatment for melanoma in dogs depends on the tumor’s location, stage, and whether it has metastasized.

Surgical Removal:

Surgery is often the first line of treatment for localized melanomas. Complete excision with clean margins is crucial.

Radiation Therapy:

Radiation can be used post-surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells or as a primary treatment for non-resectable tumors.


Chemotherapy is less commonly used for melanoma but may be considered in cases of metastasis or when other treatments are not feasible.


Immunotherapy, such as the use of melanoma vaccines, can help stimulate the dog’s immune system to fight the cancer. Oncept, a DNA-based vaccine, is one example.

Palliative Care:

For advanced cases, palliative care focuses on relieving symptoms and improving quality of life.


Melanoma in dogs is a complex and potentially aggressive form of cancer that requires early detection and appropriate treatment. By understanding the different types of melanoma, their symptoms, stages, and treatment options, pet owners can better manage their dog’s health and work with veterinarians to provide the best possible care. Regular check-ups and prompt attention to unusual signs can significantly improve outcomes for dogs diagnosed with melanoma.

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