Cat and dog outside in the sun.

Although they love their time in the sun, pets can be at risk for skin cancer just as humans can. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), the most common type of cancer diagnosed in dogs is skin. Although cats are less likely to be diagnosed with skin cancer, they can still develop it, especially if they have short hair and frequent sun exposure. It is important to maintain your pet’s annual wellness exams, where they receive head-to-claw examinations, including a skin examination. Skin cancer can be detected at these visits, but it is important for pet owners to be informed and on the lookout as well, especially as their pets get older.

Types of Skin Cancer and Risk Factors

Skin cancers that are commonly diagnosed in cats and dogs include:

  • Malignant melanoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Basal cell carcinoma
  • Mast cell tumors
  • Fibrosarcoma

Certain modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors contribute to the probability of developing skin cancer. Risk factors which increase a pet’s risk for developing skin cancer include:

  • Short hair or a coat that is not thick enough to protect from sunlight
  • Light skin
  • Length of time exposed to sunlight
  • Hereditary factors–some breeds are predisposed to certain skin cancers
  • Exposure to environmental toxins, including cigarette smoke

Most of the risk factors are not modifiable, however, for those that are, such as sun exposure and exposure to cigarette smoke, you can ensure that your pet has decreased or limited exposure to mitigate the risk. Make sure your pet does not spend too much time in the sun, especially during times of day when sunlight is most intense. If someone smokes in the household, have them move to an outdoor, well-ventilated area and do not let your pet spend time in a secondhand smoke cloud. If you are concerned about specific hereditary risks related to the breed of your pet, the veterinary team can discuss these with you. Knowing what kind of cancer your pet may be predisposed to can help with early detection and treatment.

Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment

It is important to catch skin cancer as early as possible. Early detection and treatment typically result in a better prognosis. It is helpful to be observant of your pet’s skin when petting them. Look and feel for any abnormalities. Signs and symptoms of skin cancer in pets to watch for include:

  • Unusual lump, growth, or lesions on the skin
  • Redness or flaky patches of skin
  • Open sores that will not heal
  • Inflammation or swelling of areas of skin

Treatment options for skin cancer typically include surgical removal, chemotherapy, radiation, or some combination of these modalities. A treatment plan would be developed based on the type of cancer and stage, or how advanced the skin cancer was. A veterinary oncologist can speak more to this should you ever need one.

If you have noticed something unusual about your pet’s skin, please be sure to schedule an appointment as soon as possible.