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sunny side up: petplan pet insurance demystifies melanoma



I’m not sure what the weather is like where you are located, but in our area the sun is shining, the temperature is warming up, and the skies are blue – finally! 

It is the type of weather that just begs you to go outside and enjoy yourself; and I am sure that adventures outside with your canine (and possibly feline) companion are high on your list of things to do. 

As you prepare to head outside (apply sunscreen, put on your wide brimmed hat, and grab your sunglasses), you may be wondering if you need to worry about prepping your pet for the sudden increase in sun exposure.  As humans, one of our biggest risks and concerns is the development of melanoma, a type of skin cancer that is known to be related to sun exposure.  Fortunately, there is no correlation (to date) between sun exposure and melanoma in dogs and cats. 

Don’t get too excited quite yet; unfortunately, melanoma is still a real – and serious – condition that can affect our pets. 

Melanoma is more common in dogs than in cats.  The canine breeds especially prone to developing melanoma include terriers (especially Scottish Terriers), Miniature and Giant Schnauzers and Golden Retrievers; however, any dog breed has the potential of developing melanoma.  The most common location of these growths is on the head, forelimbs, and feet and/or within the mouth.  The location of the growth is very important in determining whether or not is it benign or malignant. 

Contrary to popular belief, these growths are not always brown or black in color.  They can be white or pink at times, and they grow at various rates.  If the growths are in the mouth, you may notice drooling, a bad odor, or sometimes bleeding from the mouth.  If they are on the feet/toes, you may notice limping or swelling of the affected toe. 

Diagnosis usually requires fine needle aspirate (when we use a needle to get a sample of the growth) and/or biopsy (surgical removal).  Depending on the size and location, we may be able to remove the entire growth during surgery, but sometimes removal is not possible.  At these times, we may just take a sample to send to the lab. 

These growths are staged just like any tumor to help determine long term prognosis.  Staging is determined based on location of the growth, size of the growth, and whether or not there is evidence that the tumor has spread to other parts of the body.  Your vet may recommend bloodwork, radiographs, testing of nearby lymph nodes and/or abdominal ultrasounds depending on what they find on physical exam.  These tests can help determine how advanced/malignant the disease has become.

Malignant tumors are treated in a variety of ways depending on their location, size and staging.  Surgical removal and/or amputation may be recommended, as well as radiation therapy, chemotherapy and possibly vaccination.  There is a melanoma vaccine available that has shown very promising effectiveness at prolonging survival times.  Your veterinarian and/or veterinary oncologist is the best source of information regarding the treatment protocol that will be best for your pet.

The most important thing to remember is that any new growth you notice should be examined by your vet.  As I always say, it is better to hear, “That is nothing to worry about,” instead of, “I wish we had caught this earlier.” In the case of malignancies, the long term prognosis is best if these growths are caught early, and when they are small.

Though the sun may not be a concern for the development of melanomas in dogs and cats, it is still important to use caution when going outside for sunny day adventures.  Just like you and I, our four legged furry friends can get sunburned and overheated.  The last thing you want is unnecessary “rain” on your perfectly sunny day!

To more waggin’ and purrin’. rwkj

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Chris AshtonCo-Founder and Co-CEO of Petplan Pet Insurance
vet tip of the week

Visit your vet at least once a year to keep your pet protected from preventable diseases.