Mast Cell Tumors in Dogs

Mast cell tumors is a common kind of skin cancer in dogs. About 20 percent of all cases of canine skin cancer are in the form of mast cell tumors.

You probably know that mast cells are important cells forming part of the immune system. They can be found in all body tissues and protect the body from invading organisms such as parasites.

When the body is faced with an infection, the immune system triggers the mast cells to release chemicals from storage granules located inside the mast cells. Some chemicals released by mast cells include heparin (which prevents blood clots in vessels); others are histamine, serotonin, and proteolytic enzymes (enzymes for the breakdown of proteins). These chemicals are toxic to the invading parasites.

Mast cells are bound within tissues that interface with the external world such as the skin, respiratory or intestinal tract, and do not circulate through the body.

A mast cell tumor is formed by a large number of, well, mast cells.

As you can imagine, with so many mast cells in a mast cell tumor, and with so many chemicals contained in the mast cells, a lot of problems can arise when these mast cells are damaged and become cancerous. The cells of mast cell tumors in dogs become very unstable, and they may release disproportionally high levels of chemicals such as histamine and heparin into the body without being triggered by the immune system, causing the dog to show allergic symptoms, and wreaking havoc on the dog's body systems and functions, such as the heart rate and blood pressure.

Most mast cell tumors in dogs occur in the skin, but they can also occur elsewhere in the body. Like other cancers, mast cell tumors can occur at sites of previous inflammation. Canine mast cell tumors are very invasive and difficult to treat.

About half of all mast cell tumors are malignant, and up to 50 percent recur after surgical removal. Mast cell tumors that appear in the armpit area, mammary tissue, groin, anus or genital areas, in the lips, eyelids, or body openings are likely to be malignant.

The appearance of canine mast cell tumors are rather uncharacteristic and can mimic other benign skin lesions such as lipomas (fatty tumors). Because of their ability to mimic benign skin tumors, these dangerous mast cell tumors often are not diagnosed until later in the disease, resulting in a worse prognosis for the dog patient.

Detailed Information on Canine Mast Cell Tumors

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Symptoms of Mast Cell Tumors in Dogs

Basset Hound As mentioned above, canine mast cell tumors are usually found in the skin, but they can also be commonly found on the trunk, limbs, and genital area. The tumor can take on various forms and appearance - it can be smooth and intact, or it can be ulcerated. It can occur as a single lump, or the tumor can arise as multiples.

Dogs with canine mast cell tumors show the following clinical signs:

  • Itching and inflammation of the skin.
  • Occasional local bleeding while tumor is scratched.
  • Ulcers in the gastrointestinal tract causing mild to severe bleeding, resulting in stools tainted with blood.
  • Vomiting

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Causes and Risk Factors

The exact cause is not exactly clear. It is possible that there are a variety of different causes for the development of this tumor, such as hereditary and environmental factors.

There is no known sex predisposition to developing mast cell tumors in dogs.

While mast cell tumors can develop in all ages, most of them develop in older dogs (those around 8-9 years old).

It seems that brachiocephalic breeds (those having a short, pushed-in snort), such as boxers, bulldogs, and pugs, are at greater risk than other breeds.

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Diagnosis of Mast Cell Tumors in Dogs

Diagnosis is made with a needle aspirate, a process in which the veterinarian uses a needle to collect some tumor cells to be examined under the microscope.

When canine mast cell tumors are diagnosed, a tissue biopsy will be carried out in order to grade and stage the tumor. These procedures help determine the prognosis, as well as the type of treatment to be given to the dog patient.

Mast cell tumors are categorized into three grades (Grade I, II, III), depending on how malignant they are, with Grade III being the most serious and malignant.

In addition to grading, the tumor has to be "staged" to determine the extent to which the tumor has spread. Using the stage and the grade, a most appropriate treatment plan can be formed.

Treatment of Mast Cell Tumors in Dogs

Depending on the grade and stage of a mast cell tumor, common treatment includes surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.


For small mast cell tumors in dogs, surgery is effective if the disease is diagnosed early and the tumor is a Grade I mast cell tumor. If performed correctly and the margins are clean, a cure is usually expected.

If cancer cells are still being found in the surgical margins, a second surgery, or radiation therapy, or both will be necessary to kill off the remaining cancer cells.


Radiation is recommended for a dog patient with a tumor in a location that does not allow aggressive surgical removal. Mast cell tumors located on an extremity seem to respond better to radiation than do tumors located on the trunk.

Sometimes post-surgical radiation is required to lower the risk of reoccurrence so that the dog patient can enjoy a better quality of life for a longer period of time.


In addition to surgery for malignant canine mast cell tumors, or if the tumors have metastasized, local injections of drugs (such as vinblastine, prednisolone, chlorambucil) can be used.

In 2009, FDA in America (Food and Drug Administration) approved a new drug called Palladia, which is the first drug developed specifically for the treatment of mast cell tumors in dogs. This drug works by cutting off the blood supply to the tumor so that the tumor cells eventually die off. Pfizer, the company that developed the drug, has reported that this drug can prolong a dog patient's life and improve the dog's quality of life.

Palladia is, however, not without side effects. Possible side effects include diarrhea, appetite and weight loss, lameness, and blood in the dog's stool.

Corgi Puppy

Treating Mast Cell Tumors in Dogs Holistically

Many dog patients respond well to holistic treatment, using both conventional and complementary treatment options such as herbs and supplements. Visit our pages on Herbs for Canine Cancer and Dog Cancer Diet for more information.

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