Constant scratching! Who does it frustrate more, you or your dog?! If your pet needs relief from chronic itching—or any other skin issue—our veterinarians can help you with dog dermatology.
In addition to itching, other skin, ear, hair, and nail issues may include sores, inflammation, loss of fur, or bacterial infection. These, and problems like them, can bring immense discomfort to your dog, and cause distress for you and your entire family. But, starting from this web page, you and your dog can find relief.
Common causes of dermatology issues in dogs include:
- Air-bourne allergens
- Food allergies
- Hereditary conditions
- Hormonal diseases
Most skin, ear, hair, and nail issues are easy for your pet’s doctor to treat. Other issues may need the attention of a specialist in dermatology for pets. Talk to your vet about your pet’s condition and board-certified pet dermatologists in the St. Petersburg area. A discussion with the vet may reveal that your dog does not need a specialist after all.
To be sure, some dermatology disorders are serious in both cause and effect. On the other hand, mild cases are very common—and even inevitable. No matter how severe your dog’s condition, it can be either eliminated or managed with compassionate veterinary care.
Some common dermatological conditions that our vets can treat or manage are:
- Alopecia (hair loss)
- Atopic Dermatitis (skin allergy)
- Ectoparasites (external parasites)
- Mange (mite infestation)
- Melanoma (skin cancer)
- Otitis (ear infection)
- Pyoderma (bacterial infection)
- Ringworm (fungal infection)
- Skin Growths and Masses
- Staph infection (bacterial)
Here, you can learn more about the common skin conditions that can affect your dog. If you have any questions about your pet’s dermatology, we will be happy to help you further—just call or visit!
Alopecia (Hair Loss)
Complete or partial loss of fur (or alopecia) in dogs is usually a symptom of some other condition. There are several causes of hair loss, and our veterinarians can help determine which is to blame for your pet’s alopecia. These causal issues can be categorized into one—or both—of two groups: causes that are accompanied by itchy skin, and those that are not.
Cause of Alopecia
Dogs that acquire alopecia are born with healthy hair follicles and a normal coat of fur. However, later in life, conditions intrude to damage the hair follicles, shafts, and skin, or in some other way reduce hair growth. Some diseases that affect the skin can lead dogs to remove their fur in an attempt to relieve their discomfort.
Alopecia With Itchy Skin
Successful treatment of alopecia requires that we diagnose the precise cause. We want to first address any itching, scratching, and inflammation in areas of hair loss. If your dog is losing hair in areas of inflamed and itchy skin, we can focus our initial diagnostics on these possible causes:
- Barbering (pulling fur out in an effort to scratch)
- Allergies (such as foods, mites, or pollens)
- Parasites (such as fleas and ticks)
- Demodectic mange (mites)
- Bacterial infections (such as staph)
- Fungal infections (such as ringworm and yeast)
- Autoimmune diseases (such as pemphigus foliaceous)
- Color dilution alopecia
Alopecia accompanied by inflammation usually involves itching or pain. Pain and itch can be the result of infection, parasites, or allergies. Moreover, bacterial and fungal infections, as well as parasites, can damage or destroy hair follicles.
In addition, some diseases, traumas (such as burns), and poisonings (such as iodine or mercury) can inflame the skin. Other causes of inflammatory hair loss include friction (such as loose or tight-fitting collars), over-grooming, and (rarely) skin cancer. Secondary infections—from still other conditions—can cause skin inflammation too.
Alopecia Without Itchy Skin
Non-inflammatory alopecia can be the result of deficient nutrition (such as lack of quality protein) and imbalanced hormones (such as hypothyroidism). These can also impede the development of healthy follicles. Some dogs can experience temporary hair loss, without inflammation, during or after pregnancy or serious illness.
If your dog’s alopecia is not accompanied by itchy skin, our vets will focus their concern on the following possible causes:
- Nutrition deficiency
- Cushing’s disease
- Autoimmune diseases
- Color dilution alopecia
- Congenital diseases
- Genetics or heredity
Some dogs that are born with alopecia (as a congenital condition) may display hair loss when, or soon after, they are born. Other dogs may not show signs of alopecia until their “teenage” years. Congenital alopecia can be inherited or not. Either way, underdeveloped hair follicles are typically the reason for the loss or lack of fur.
Symptoms of Alopecia
Hair loss can be patchy in spots or widespread across a dog’s body—regardless of the cause (generally speaking). The pattern of hair loss can be symmetrical on both sides of the body or localized to one area. In addition to these possible hair-loss patterns, symptoms of alopecia can include skin that is…
Remember, if your dog is shedding excessively, this may be a normal stage in your pet’s growth and development. Pets naturally shed old hair, to be replaced by new hair. On the other hand, if excessive shedding appears alongside any of the symptoms or signs of alopecia, please let us know.
Diagnosing alopecia means determining the cause of hair loss. Finding the precise cause will depend on a thorough understanding of your dog’s history and a pet exam by your veterinarian. Your vet will need to know, or look for…
- Your breed’s predisposition to inherited or congenital alopecia
- Your dog’s routine and habits
- The onset, progression, and nature of symptoms
- Whether symptoms include itching and infection
- The distribution and pattern of hair loss
- Whether hair is lost at the follicle or is torn
- The presence of parasites, such as fleas and mites
- The presence of any other health issues
Your pet’s doctor will comb your dog’s fur to look for evidence of parasites. The doctor will also take skin scrapings to have them tested. Laboratory tests can include cultures and smears to look for the presence of infection by bacteria, fungus, or yeast. Further, (if needed) a skin biopsy can reveal or confirm the cause of your pet’s alopecia if it is a foreign agent, inflammation, or cancer.
If skin tests return negative, or if a hormonal imbalance is suspected, the vet may have blood and urine samples tested. This is to see if an underlying disease or deficiency is playing a part in your dog’s loss of fur. Allergy testing may also be recommended, especially if itchy skin is involved.
Treatment of Alopecia
Treatment will address the cause of hair loss that your veterinarian diagnosed. For example, if the culprit is parasitic in nature, your vet will prescribe a preventative. If infection is the cause, the treatment will include an antibiotic. If an underlying disease is at fault, your veterinarian will devise a treatment plan to manage the condition and restore your pet to better health.
It can take time to pinpoint the exact cause of a pet's alopecia. But together, and with the help of a board-certified pet dermatologist if needed, we will find it. Your veterinarian will prescribe medication to control your pet’s itching and discomfort in the meantime. Then, when the exact cause is discovered, your dog will be on the right treatment to stop the loss of fur and prevent it in the future.
Atopic Dermatitis (Skin Allergy)
Atopic dermatitis, or atopy, is the medical term for environmental allergies. This skin disease is characterized by allergic reactions to inhaled allergens such as pollen, dust mites, and grasses. Scientists are unsure of the exact cause of atopy, but they believe genetics may play a role in a defective skin barrier and an overactive immune system.
When humans suffer environmental allergies, the tell-tale signs are congestion, sneezing, runny nose, or itchy watering eyes. But in dogs, the main symptoms of allergic reaction to airborne allergens are itchy and infected skin. (Although some dogs may suffer watery eyes or sneezing like the rest of us.)
Symptoms of Atopic Dermatitis
Symptoms of atopic dermatitis may appear as early as puppyhood. More generally, however, symptoms begin between the ages of one and six. These symptoms may worsen over time. Symptoms of atopic dermatitis in dogs may include skin that is…
- Missing fur
- Dark (advanced)
- Thick (advanced)
And then there’s the scratching! Dogs may scratch, nibble, lick, or rub the areas that itch until the skin turns red and sores develop. Itching may occur at specific places on the body, or all over. Specific areas most often affected by atopic dermatitis are the face, chest, armpits, and especially the ears, legs, and feet. Some dogs may suffer from the disease only in their ears.
Infections can result from bacteria or yeast entering the skin, causing the area to be oily and foul-smelling. Generally, the bacteria and yeast that cause these infections are the same bacteria and yeast that live on everyone’s skin all of the time. In an allergic dog, the inflammation from the allergies will break down the barriers that the skin is supposed to provide.
Once the skin barriers are broken down, the naturally occurring bacteria and yeast will find easy access and begin reproducing, creating skin infection or pyoderma. Scratching and infection can also lead to areas of missing fur. Older dogs suffering from atopic dermatitis are prone to more frequent infections of the skin or ears, which can result in dark, thickened skin.
Treatment of Atopy
Your veterinarian can help control your dog’s skin reactions to airborne allergens, in most cases, with medication. Some treatments do not begin to work until several weeks or months after they start. So other medications may be suggested to help reduce symptoms in the meantime. There are pros and cons to each treatment of atopic dermatitis, so discuss with the doctor which regimen is best for your dog.
In addition, regardless of the treatment your dog receives, remember that dogs with atopic dermatitis often have allergies to additional substances other than airborne ones. These other causes of an allergic reaction, such as foods and parasites, can only exacerbate the allergies your pet suffers due to atopy. So additional treatments and preventatives that target these other allergy sources may be required.
Targeted Anti-Itch Therapy (Apoquel and Cytopoint)
In allergic dogs, their allergies trigger the production of certain proteins which send signals to the brain to create an itch response. Medications like Apoquel and Cytopoint target those proteins and block them from getting their signals out. Both drugs are themselves composed of proteins—specific enzymes that neutralize the main proteins involved in allergic itch. These medications work for many kinds of allergic itch including atopy, food allergy, and even flea allergy.
Apoquel is the first medication (a selective Janus Kinase enzyme inhibitor) to treat itch and inflammation caused by atopy and skin allergies in dogs. It is administered orally in daily tablet form, with milder side effects than other drugs. It is for dogs one-year-old and older. Its effects begin within four hours and provide relief from inflammation and itch within 24 hours.
Cytopoint (a monoclonal antibody designed to neutralize the Interleukin-31 protein) is made for dogs. Like Apoquel, it is a more recent treatment for atopic dermatitis, but it has even fewer side effects. It is administered by your veterinarian as an injection and starts preventing itch within 24 hours. Depending on your dog, injections are given every one to two months, either continuously or seasonally. It is safe for dogs of all ages.
This is one of the original treatments for environmental allergies and is still one of the most common. Steroids, which make use of cortisone, can be very effective but can also have more side effects. They help prevent itch and inflammation very effectively. On the other hand, they can lead to over-eating, -drinking, and -urinating. More frequent or more resistant infections are also possible.
While the side effects of steroids are undesirable, this treatment option may be the only option that can effectively control your dog’s atopy. Alternative treatments, though they may be less effective, can be more tolerable. Your vet can help you decide which is in the best interests of your pet.
Histamine plays an important role in human allergies but is not as big a factor in canine allergies. For this reason, antihistamines are generally not highly effective for moderate to severe atopy. That being said, antihistamines are generally safe. Drowsiness is typically their only side effect. Antihistamines can be more effective when used with EFAs (essential fatty acids). EFAs themselves have no side effects, but they may not be effective until up to two months after the start of treatment.
ASIT (Allergen Specific Immunotherapy)
While steroids and antihistamines attempt to control the symptoms of atopic dermatitis, ASIT seeks to strengthen the immune system against airborne allergens so that symptoms are a non-issue. Similar to what vaccinations are for viruses, ASIT is an injection regimen that helps build your dog’s immunity to environmental allergens.
First, your veterinarian will perform allergy testing to reveal which allergens affect your pet. Then, after determining the allergens to which your dog is sensitive, we can do our best to avoid them. But avoiding allergens has extremely limited results, especially regarding the airborne variety. This is where ASIT comes in; now we can proceed to desensitize your pooch to the allergens we identified earlier. (This may or may not be in addition to other treatments, depending on your vet’s recommendation.)
The immunotherapy injections in ASIT stimulate the immune system to resist the allergic reactions of the allergens contained within them. This helps prevent the reaction or at least makes it a lot more bearable. ASIT injections are administered every 1 to 3 weeks perpetually. They become effective in 6 to 12 months and have a 60 to 70% success rate.
Atopic dermatitis is often accompanied by other conditions that require treatment or prevention. It is not uncommon for dogs with atopy to experience secondary infections of the skin and ears, such as yeast infection. They may also be prone to sensitive skin.
If this is the case for your dog, your vet will recommend an antibiotic, flea preventative, medicated shampoo, or antifungal medication, as the case may be. These will treat the secondary conditions and/or prevent them from exacerbating your pup’s allergic reactions. In addition, an anti-inflammatory can help control the itch.
Sometimes, treatment for atopic dermatitis needs to only be administered for a short time. But if symptoms reoccur soon after treatment ends, we will need to consider extending the treatment long-term and possibly adjusting the treatment regimen.
Ultimately, the exact nature of allergy, infection, skin type and temperament of your dog will help determine the best combination of therapies to treat your pet’s atopy. Finding the combination that works best for your dog may require several visits with a pet dermatologist. Remember, we hope that you and your pet will need fewer vet visits and will find relief.
Dogs can chronically shed small, microscopic flakes of skin (dander) for a variety of reasons. Even though many creatures shed old skin cells during the normal course of life, dander is not a normal condition. It is an excessive shedding of skin due to one or more secondary issues.
Cause of Dog Dander
Some of the causes of dander in dogs are:
- Poor nutrition
- Skin allergies
- Bacterial infections
- Yeast infections
- Endocrine disorders
- Genetic disorders
- Skin diseases
These flecks of a pet’s skin can linger in the air and settle on furniture. Not surprisingly, allergens in dog dander can contribute to allergy symptoms in humans. So getting to the root cause of your dog’s dander—and treating it—is beneficial to the health of your whole family.
Keep in mind that it may take more than one visit to the vet to determine the exact cause of dander. In addition, after treatment begins, it may take three to six weeks to start seeing results. In the meantime, you can help reduce the potential for allergic responses at home by regularly dusting and vacuuming—perhaps daily—especially around your dog’s sleeping area.
Treatment for Dog Dander
If the underlying cause of your pet’s dander is poor nutrition, your vet can recommend a diet for your dog that is higher in quality protein and essential fatty acids. These are important components in nutrition that help keep your pet’s skin and coat healthy. Be sure not to feed your dog low quality or old, expired foods because these can lack the essential nutrients.
Fleas, mites, and other external parasites bite the skin and can cause inflammation and itch. Inflamed skin and scratching lead to flaking and dander. So it’s important to maintain a regimen of parasite control. Your veterinarian can suggest a treatment that prevents several external (as well as internal) parasites.
Skin allergies, such as atopic dermatitis, and skin infections from bacteria and yeast can also lead to inflammation and flaking of the skin. Your dog’s doctor can treat skin allergies with a medication suited to your pet’s specific needs, such as Cytopoint or Apoquel. Antibiotics may also be recommended to treat infections.
Regular bathing and grooming are also effective in treating dog dander. Medicated shampoos can provide relief from itching and dry skin. Also, routine brushing and trimming can help reduce the buildup of shed skin within the fur, which would otherwise fall indiscriminately around the house. However, bathing and grooming may affect only symptoms, so see your veterinarian to help address the underlying cause of dander.
If the above treatments do not reduce or eliminate your dog’s dander, the vet will want to test for a skin disorder or internal disease. This may include a referral to a veterinary specialist in dermatology or oncology. The specialist can analyze a biopsy or culture of the skin to rule out cancerous, autoimmune, or genetic conditions. If such a condition is diagnosed, they will determine a treatment strategy to bring your dog back to better health.
Skin Growths and Masses
When you find a new bump or lump on your dog’s skin, it’s natural to wonder-worry about what it might be. To be sure, skin growths can be either perfectly harmless or very serious. In this section, we want to help you determine when to see your veterinarian about a mass on your dog’s skin.
As dogs age, the number of growths and masses on their skin tends to increase, just like in people. So these skin issues are very common, especially in older dogs. And they are just as varied as they are common. Skin growths usually take the form of cysts, tumors, or some other type of mass. What’s the difference?
Cysts are fluid-filled sacs, which can be irritating to dogs but are generally harmless. Tumors are overgrowths of abnormal cells, which can manifest as lumps or even rashes and can be either benign or malignant (harmless or destructive). Other skin masses, which don’t fit the definition of cyst or tumor, are typically benign. Some growths may appear inside a dog’s mouth.
As for the cause of skin growths and masses on dogs, it is difficult to determine. Scientists believe either, or both, genetics and the environment are factors in the formation of skin tumors and cysts. Hormones, chemicals, solar radiation, and viruses may all have a role to play.
Types of Skin Growths on Dogs
“Is it cancer?” That is sometimes the first and most worrying question that dog owners may ask when they encounter a new bump on their pet. Even when they learn it is not a cancerous lump, owners may still feel their dog’s discomfort and want treatment for their best friend. What are some various kinds of cancerous and non-cancerous growths?
Common non-cancerous masses include cysts, warts, and blocked hair follicles. Even though they may generate less worry for dog owners, they may cause pets some discomfort. Only a veterinarian can perform the testing required to determine if a growth or mass should be treated or should simply be monitored for now.
Acrochordon (Skin Tags). Like in humans, skin tags on dogs are overgrowths of skin tissue and typically harmless. They can protrude from the surrounding skin, and even hang off the skin on thin stalks. They are usually the same color as the skin. If your veterinarian recommends removing a skin tag, it may be because it has grown large or is an irritant to your pet.
Cutaneous Hemangioma (Angiomas). These benign tumors are composed of cells from blood vessels in the skin. They appear on the skin as small, dark-reddish domes. Cutaneous hemangiomas commonly affect older dogs and are caused by the sun, chemicals, or some other catalyst. Treatment, if recommended by your vet, can include freezing or surgical removal of the mass.
Cutaneous Histiocytoma (Button Tumors). Young dogs between one and three years of age may develop histiocytomas, which usually disappear after two or three months. However, if any of these growths become large or irritated, your veterinarian may recommend their surgical removal. They are overgrowths of white blood cells and appear on a dog’s skin as round, pink to red bumps, usually around the head and neck.
Fibromas. Generally speaking, a fibroma appears as a solitary mass on a dog’s extremities or groin area. Fibromas can form as a stalked protrusion or be dome-like in shape. They are composed of the skin cells called fibroblasts and may also contain the pigment melanin. Your vet can examine the mass to determine if it needs to be removed either surgically or by freezing.
Follicular Cysts. If a hair follicle or oil gland in a dog becomes blocked, a follicular cyst may develop on the skin. They are usually about one quarter of an inch in size but may grow to one inch or more. Follicular cysts secrete a thick substance that is brown, yellow, or gray. They are benign in nature; but if they rupture, they can be painful and become inflamed and infected.
Lipomas. A lipoma is a typically slow-developing mass of fat cells under the skin of older dogs. Although benign, lipomas may be recommended for removal by your vet if they become sufficiently large in an area to hinder mobility, or cause discomfort by movement or pressure. They are painless in themselves, but they can rupture and cause skin damage if care is not taken.
Oral Growths. Several types of growth occur within a dog’s mouth and can cause bad breath and indications of pain, such as difficulty chewing and pawing at the mouth. Since some oral tumors can affect facial bones and teeth, the doctor may request an exam with x-rays to determine if any hidden damage is occurring. Two common oral growths are epulides and gingival hyperplasia, both of which affect mainly the gums:
Epulides develop on the gum line and are largely benign. However, your vet will observe and test them routinely, as they can become malignant. Gingival hyperplasia are benign excesses of gum tissue. Your veterinarian can determine if such an overgrowth is interfering with your dog’s quality of life. The doctor may recommend removal and also have it analyzed to rule out malignancy.
Papilloma (Warts). Viral warts typically form on the skin of younger dogs and resolve when the immune system grows strong enough to defeat the virus. Non-viral warts can sometimes develop on older dogs. Papillomas have an appearance like cauliflower and usually grow around the mouth, eyes, and feet. Warts inside the mouth are especially contagious among dogs. Surgical removal is sometimes recommended.
Sebaceous Adenomas and Cysts. Among the more common skin masses on dogs are sebaceous cysts, which can develop into tumors called adenomas. The cysts are filled with a waxy or greasy substance. They form because of clogged oil glands and may secrete the oils, bleed, itch, and/or become inflamed and infected. The veterinarian can remove them if they are bothersome to your dog, but they rarely cause further complications.
Trichoepithelioma. Older dogs can develop an overgrowth of hair follicle sheath cells called a trichoepithelioma. This type of growth is usually found as a single occurrence, either on the head, back, tail, or a leg. It can be fluid-filled or solid bumps, and it can form into ulcers. Your dog’s doctor will typically recommend its removal, a biopsy, and testing to ensure it is not a different kind of tumor.
Dogs may develop cancerous masses that are benign or malignant. The benign types of cancer typically remain in the area of the skin where they first developed. They may grow quite large but are generally easy to remove through surgery. Other treatments may include chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.
Malignant masses usually spread to other parts of the body and can cause damage to a dog’s organs, sometimes quite rapidly. Veterinarians have the tools and knowledge to distinguish malignant from benign tumors. Diagnostic procedures can include biopsy, examination of mass cells under a microscope, and imaging.
Basal Cell Carcinomas. Basal cells are responsible for generating new skin cells. Overgrowths of basal cells usually form in mature dogs. These tumors are often darker in color and grow in various shapes, mostly on the head, neck, or shoulders.
Ceruminous Gland Adenoma. Within the ear canal is the ceruminous (earwax) cell gland. Masses of this type of tissue typically form close to a dog’s ear drum and are brownish, stalked tumors. Symptoms can be confused with those of an ear infection, so a veterinarian is needed to correctly diagnose and treat the cancer. Treatment generally includes a resection of the ear canal.
Cutaneous Lymphoma. If your dog suffers from itchy dry skin that is red and flaky, your veterinarian will perform tests to rule out cutaneous lymphoma. Symptoms of this cancer progress to thick oozing skin and ulcerated lesions. The vet may recommend medication to treat the itch, lesions, and any infection.
Fibrosarcoma. Fibroblasts are cells within a dog’s connective tissues and, when they grow uncontrollably, develop into the malignant tumor fibrosarcoma. They usually form on the trunk of the body or legs. The tumors appear as subdermal lumps which can ulcerate and bleed. Your vet’s exam will include X-rays to determine if the cancer is present in the bone tissues.
Malignant Melanoma. Skin cells that produce the pigment of a dog’s skin are called melanocytes. Although generally benign when present in the skin, tumors of these cells (melanoma) that grow in the mouth or nail beds may become malignant and metastasize to other parts of the body. They are dark brown to black irregular spots that occur usually on the face or trunk, perhaps caused by sun exposure.
Mammary Gland Tumors. These common tumors in female canines occur less often in those that are spayed. They are overgrowths of the cells that comprise breast tissue. A lump on a female’s belly may indicate a tumor, along with pain in the area, weakness, and cough.
Mast Cell Tumors. Normal mast cells in the skin function within the immune system as reactors to skin trauma. Mast cell tumors generally appear in a dog’s skin—as bumps on the head, neck, torso, and legs—but can occur in other body organs.
The great majority of mast cell tumors are malignant, but they vary greatly in their behavior and aggressiveness. These tumors may release histamine, so the vet may administer an antihistamine to help provide relief to your pet.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma. Like melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma may have exposure to the sun as the main cause. And, likewise, may be found in the skin or mouth. It is among the more common skin cancers and occurs as irregular, pink to red tumors. Squamous cells are part of the thin layer of the outer skin and the linings of some internal body organs.
Transmissible Venereal Tumors. Transmissible venereal tumors resemble cauliflower in appearance. They can be found singly or in groups, most often on the external genitalia or face. The disease can spread through mating or close contact with another carrier.
Diagnosis of Skin Growths and Masses
Simply looking at a skin growth or mass does not tell us much about how benign or malignant it is. Many types of masses look similar, and skin abnormalities can also look like the symptoms of common canine ailments. We can say that roughly 70% of the abnormal lumps on all dogs are benign. Also, in general, any mass that grows or changes rapidly should be given extra consideration.
Your veterinarian can begin, and perhaps complete, the diagnosis process to determine the type of mass on your dog. The doctor may suggest one or more screening methods to diagnose your pet:
- Monitor the growth or mass for a time to see if it resolves by itself
- Obtain a fine needle aspirate, a small sample of the mass’s cells, for examination
- If the mass is ulcerated (or is otherwise an open sore), collect a cell sample via impression smear for evaluation
- Perform a biopsy, removing a small piece of the mass for examination
- Surgically remove the mass in its entirety, as both a treatment and for evaluation
The examination of your dog’s mass will be performed by a skilled, qualified veterinary pathologist. Your veterinarian and/or the pathologist should diagnose your pet as soon as possible after the growth is discovered. Once they determine the type of cells that comprise the mass, they can ascertain whether it is cancerous or not.
In addition to the pathology of the mass, your veterinarian will recommend other diagnostics if cancer is involved. These can include:
- Blood chemistry and complete blood count
- X-ray, ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI (to determine if a mass has metastasized internally)
As mentioned above, not every bump on a dog’s skin is cancerous. For example, an insect bite (if that is all it turns out to be) may simply require observation. In other cases, such as with a lipoma or cyst, your vet will recommend removal only if it continues to grow or bring discomfort to your pet.
Treatment of Skin Growths and Masses
Benign masses generally do not require treatment if the dog is older, or if the mass is not growing, ulcerated, or bothersome to the pet. Otherwise, treatment depends on the dog’s health and the mass’s size, location, and type.
There are a myriad of different types of cells in the body, so the number of different types of growths is large. A thorough diagnosis is needed to determine the type of mass and therefore the proper treatment. But there are standard procedures that, singly or in combination, can address nearly all types of skin growths. These include:
- Surgical Removal
Your vet will usually suggest removal of your dog’s skin mass if: your pet scratches at it or is “concerned” about it in other ways, it keeps getting nicked when your dog is groomed, it keeps getting infected, or a diagnosis reveals it is cancer. If cancerous, the doctor will remove a larger area of tissue around the tumor to ensure no cancer cells remain.
General anesthesia may be recommended depending on the location, size, and depth of the mass. On the other hand, a local anesthesia can be injected under a smaller mass, which is then excised from the dog’s numbed skin. The doctor will have already shaved and cleaned the area before the incision, and will close the site with sutures afterward.
The procedure will take about ten minutes per site, but large masses can take longer. In rare cases, it may not be possible to completely remove a large tumor; but even a partial removal can greatly improve a dog’s quality of life. Typically, removal is the most effective and least costly treatment, and has the fewest side effects.
If your dog’s pathologist has diagnosed your pet with cancer, your veterinarian may recommend chemotherapy as a treatment. This is especially the case if a tumor has metastasized and/or is discovered in more than one place in your pet. Chemotherapy is usually in addition to surgical removal of tumors to ensure that metastasized cells are killed before they can develop into new tumors.
Chemotherapy for dogs is a medication regimen that destroys the harmful cancer cells. The vet will prescribe a specific medicine, or combination of medicines, that depends on the type of cancer and the dog’s current health. The medication may be an oral or injectable one. If oral, it can be given at home. If injectable, its administration will require an appointment with your vet. Treatment may last between a few months and a few years (depending on the aggressiveness of the cancer), given on a weekly or monthly basis.
Many dog owners are hesitant about chemotherapy for their pet, because they may feel the treatment and side effects are identical to those that humans experience. But there are important differences. With humans, the goal is generally to eradicate all signs of the tumor, regardless of the cost on the body. This involves higher levels of chemotherapy and higher rates of side effects.
In veterinary medicine, however, our goals are different. Our patients do not understand all that is happening and cannot consent or refuse treatment. So the goal of chemotherapy for dogs is to extend the length and quality of life of the pet. To that end, we use lower doses of chemotherapy drugs. We rarely see side effects such as vomiting, diarrhea, appetite loss, hair loss, etc. Pet patients that go through chemotherapy are generally happy throughout their treatment.
If a dog’s cancer is of a kind that is not well-defined within an area or is located in a place that would make removing it a challenge, your vet may recommend radiation therapy as a treatment. This uses high doses of energy to kill cancer cells while the dog is under general anesthesia. Radiation may be used in combination with surgery and chemotherapy to treat cancer, depending on its type and severity.
Radiation therapy can shrink the size of large tumors to make them easier to remove, or it can destroy any remaining cancer cells that were not removed. Early side effects may include red, irritated, inflamed, and/or ulcerated skin. If the skin is shaved for the treatment, fur may grow back slower than normal and discolored. Typically, small doses of radiation are administered daily for 3 to 4 weeks.
Prevention of Skin Masses and Growths
As with nearly all illnesses and diseases, treatment has a better chance of success if the doctor can begin treating your pet earlier rather than later. Cysts and tumors—even the cancerous kind—are easier to remove or aspirate when they are small. In addition, it may be that no other therapies or surgeries will be needed if you and your vet can find skin growths early.
Make it a daily or weekly habit to monitor your dog’s skin. You can do this when you’re petting or playing with your dog. Bathing and brushing are also good occasions to examine your pet’s skin for abnormalities. If you notice something unusual that does not go away or gets worse, call your veterinarian. We want to ensure your best friend stays healthy.