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Health & Wellness

Signs that your dog might have melanoma

Melanoma symptoms vary depending on the growth's stage and location.

If you notice any new lumps or bumps on your dog’s skin, or in their eyes, mouth or nail bed, your veterinarian should have a look — it could be a melanoma, aka a type of abnormal growth.

Of course, not all lumps are melanomas — and not all melanomas are cancerous — but only your veterinarian can diagnose the cause and condition of a growth.

Keep reading to learn more about how to spot melanoma and the condition's treatment options.

What’s dog melanoma?

Melanoma is a common growth found on or in dogs made up of melanocytes, cells that produce the pigment melanin.

“Melanomas aren't always malignant (aka cancerous),” Dr. Emily Singler, VMD, Fetch’s on-staff veterinarian, shares. But when cancerous, melanoma refers to an aggressive dog cancer that requires prompt treatment.

This type of cancer is generally diagnosed in dogs 9 years and older. Breeds at higher risk include Chow Chows, Dobermans, Golden Retrievers, Gordon Setters, Irish Setters, Giant Schnauzers, Miniature Schnauzers, Scottish Terriers and other dogs with black coats.

How can I tell if my dog has melanoma? 

Typically, melanomas are darkly pigmented growths that are smooth and round or wart-like — and sometimes, they’re flesh-colored. According to Dr. Singler, they’re typically found in the mouth, eye, nail bed and on the skin.

‍What are the signs of melanoma in dogs?

The earliest sign of melanoma in dogs is a growth, which can be difficult to spot depending on its location and size.

Melanoma signs also vary depending on what stage the cancer is in — if it’s cancerous at all. For example, in late-stage malignant melanoma, symptoms can include swollen lymph nodes, more growths, weight loss, lethargy, decreased appetite, changes in breathing and other changes depending on the growth location.

However, these symptoms aren’t unique to just melanoma. Chatting with your veterinarian about changes in your pup’s behavior or health is the best way to catch cancer — or any condition — early. And most importantly, even when a growth is small, get it checked by your veterinarian, Dr. Singler adds.

Symptoms can vary depending on where the melanoma is, too— here are the most common types of melanoma and the symptoms they typically produce.

Oral melanoma

Your pup might experience oral pain as the melanoma grows. They might have bad breath, drool, bloody discharge from their mouth or a decreased interest in eating.

Ocular melanoma

Pawing at the eye, visible cloudiness or redness, squinting, abnormal discharge and vision changes can all be signs of ocular melanoma in dogs. Eye melanomas are typically benign in pups, Dr. Singler says — but an examination by your veterinarian, and possibly a veterinary ophthalmologist, is still very important. Even benign growths can cause problems for dogs and may need treatment.

Subungual melanoma

A nail bed growth might cause your pup’s nail to protrude up, be discolored or break off. Because of the bump, they might lick their paws more often, causing discomfort or bleeding. As the melanoma grows, your dog may begin to limp.

Cutaneous melanoma

Cutaneous melanoma is also referred to as skin melanoma. “A dog may start scratching or licking at the growth, or they may not notice it at all,” Dr. Singler shares.

RELATED: What’s the difference between a sebaceous cyst and a bump?

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How do the stages of malignant melanoma impact dogs?

Your veterinarian will physically examine your pup's growth and may perform a needle aspirate or a surgical biopsy to diagnose its state. If the melanoma is in the eye, your veterinarian may refer you to a canine eye specialist, known as a veterinary ophthalmologist.

If your dog is diagnosed with malignant melanoma, there are four stages: I to IV. Stage I is when the growth is less than 2 centimeters, and the second stage means that it's grown from 2 to 4 centimeters.

Stage III indicates that the growth is larger than 4 centimeters in diameter or has spread to the local lymph nodes.

Stage IV indicates that cancer has “spread to a distant part of the body from the original tumor,” Dr. Singler says.

‍‍How is malignant melanoma in dogs treated?  

Unfortunately, cancer in dogs can spread quickly. However, prompt treatment with a veterinary oncologist will give your pup the best chance of overcoming the disease.

Treatment options can vary depending on the cancer's location and stage. Treatment plans for malignant melanoma in dogs may include:

  • Surgery: When located in the nail bed, your veterinarian may recommend amputating the toe or the leg.
  • Radiation: In addition to surgery, radiation can sometimes kill cancer cells in a particular area.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy options include implantation, a pill or an injection that can kill cancer cells in a particular area or throughout the body.
  • DNA-based vaccine: According to Dr. Singler, this isn’t your typical preventive vaccination. It’s a vaccine for dogs who have already been diagnosed with melanoma and can help treat the disease before it spreads to other parts of the body.

“Whether seeking treatment or not, let your veterinarian know about any concerns you have,” Dr. Singler urges. “Your veterinarian can prescribe medication that may help with pain, appetite, nausea, secondary infection and inflammation. These steps may help improve your dog’s quality of life.”

The Dig, Fetch's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

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