Did you know dogs and cats can get tumors in their mouths? April is oral, head, and neck, esophageal cancer awareness month. Our pets can also get cancer in their mouth. These tumors can be hard to find. Most of the time we have no idea there is something growing in their mouth.
Pet’s get tumors too
Signs of Tumor in the Mouth
Several tumors can grow in the back of the mouth making it difficult to see. Most pet owners notice blood in the food or water bowl or on toys. You may also notice your dog or cat are eating food only on one side of their mouth. You may see them dropping their food. They can also have extra bad breath. Once in a while, you will see swelling along their face. Some animals the first sign is weight loss because they are having trouble eating. These signs are concerning. You should see your family veterinarian if you notice this signs. They could be signs of bad teeth or possibly a tumor in the mouth. Sometimes pet owners will see the tumor when their dog is panting or when they are playing and they see inside the dog’s mouth.
Tumors in the mouth can look red, raised, and rounder in shape. Other tumors may be black. Tumors which are infected can have a white, green, or yellow film. Tumors can form anywhere on the mouth including along the gums near the teeth, tongue, cheeks, and top of the mouth.
Oral tumors are relatively common in dogs and include malignant melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, fibrosarcoma, acanthomatous epulis, osteosarcoma, and chondrosarcoma to name a few. Cats can develop squamous cell carcinoma.
It is important to see your veterinarian if you notice any of the signs described above. The day of the appointment, your veterinarian will look closely into your pets mouth and check for any masses and bad teeth. Sedation or anesthesia is often required for a thorough examination of the mouth. This can be particularly important for tumors located in the back of the mouth or on the tongue.
X-rays of the affected area of the mouth can evaluate for signs of bone changes which can be associated with the tumor. This helps to evaluate for surgical resection. However, apparently normal X-rays do not rule out bony invasion. CT scan is the best imaging to evaluate the extent of oral tumors, particularly for those involving the maxilla (upper jaw) or back portions of the mandible (lower jaw).
A dental cleaning is part of good overall health. It is recommended whenever severe dental disease is found in the mouth or if a tumor is suspected. Pets go under anesthesia for this, and then their mouths can be fully examined. The big pieces of tartar are removed and the full health of the teeth and gums can then be seen. This is the time when some tumors are found because the pet was not otherwise showing any signs. Ultimately, a biopsy of the tumor is needed to determine what it is. This may be a small piece of the tumor or the whole tumor is removed. The tissue is sent to the lab, and a pathologist looks at it under the microscope and determines the type of tumor.
Depending on the tumor type, additional testing will be recommended. Some tumors can spread to other parts of the body such as the local lymph nodes and lungs. The lymph nodes can be evaluated with a fine needle aspirate and cytology. The lungs can be examined with x-rays.
Treatment will depend on the type of tumor, location, size, and if it has spread to other parts of the body.
Surgery is the mainstay of treatment for oral tumors. This can be a smaller surgery just removing the mass or a larger surgery removing part of the jaw. Aggressive tumors can invade into the bone so removal of the part of the bone is necessary to remove all the tumor cells. This is a large surgery and hard to imagine in our pets, but most dogs do well with this surgery. They will look different. But once the fur grows back, there is generally a shift to the nose or other part of the jaw which appears minor. This is dependent on how big of a surgery is done. The most important point, is that the source of pain (tumor) is removed. Most dogs feel much better. They need soft food in the beginning, but generally after a month or so they can eat more normal foods. Cats do not tolerate oral surgery as well and generally we are not able to remove as much tissue as we are in dogs. Since these can be difficult surgeries, it is important to talk with a veterinarian surgeon to learn more about your options and what to expect. Click here to learn more about vet surgeons and to find one near you.
Radiation therapy is another option to treat mouth tumors. Radiation uses x-rays to kill tumor cells. Radiation is delivered by a large, very precise machine which is only available in certain locations. There are veterinary radiation oncologists who would discuss this therapy option with you and how it works. Click here for a list of radiation facilities.
Radiation can be given after surgery if there are remaining tumor cells left behind. An example of this would be a tumor which was removed, but the jaw was not so there is still some disease in the bone. Radiation therapy can also be used as a primary treatment for tumors which could not be removed by surgery. There are different types of radiation therapy. Your pet may need only one treatment or several treatments over a month. Radiation can cause side effects in the mouth which can be mild to severe. The response to radiation therapy depends on the type of tumor, size, and location.
Chemotherapy is used to help slow down the spread of disease. Animals tolerate chemotherapy much better than people and have a better quality of life. Chemotherapy can come in the form of pills and IV treatments. Chemotherapy may be indicated for oral tumors, such as osteosarcoma, that have the potential for metastasis. There are lots of different chemotherapy options, and chemotherapy alone can be pursued, but this is considered more of a palliative treatment and not expected to have a large effect on the tumor in the mouth. Chemotherapy can be given on the advice and direction of a medical oncologist.
A veterinary oncologist is a veterinarian with advanced training in oncology. Oncologists can help guide you through this process and help you determine what the best treatments for your pet would be. Our oncologists at Pet Cancer Care Consulting partner with your family vet to provide a video consultation where you and your vet can learn more about your pet’s cancer, testing, and treatment options. Your vet only needs to make an account from the website to schedule the consultation. There are other oncologists where you can go and visit them directly. Click here for a list of medical oncologists.
Immunotherapy is a newer treatment option which uses the immune system to treat the cancer. These can be called vaccines, but these vaccines are not like the vaccines given yearly to prevent a disease. These vaccines prime the immune system to recognize the cancer cells and kill them. This is still a new technology in both people and pets. There is a melanoma vaccine which helps prevent spread of disease from oral melanoma in dogs. This is a series of four injections which most dogs tolerate well. The vaccine can only be given by veterinary oncologists, radiation oncologist, internal medicine specialists, and surgeons.
Prognosis largely depends on the type of tumor, location in the oral cavity (mouth), completeness of excision (surgery), and potential for spread (metastasis). Tumors that are located in the rostral (front) of the oral cavity are easier to remove with wide margins and generally have a better prognosis. Tumors in the back of the oral cavity present a greater challenge for surgical removal and additional therapy is often needed. Without treatment, most tumors in the mouth will continue to grow which can lead to pain and discomfort. These tumors also get infected commonly. Pain medications and antibiotics can go a long way to make your pet feel better for a time.
It is tough when you are facing cancer in the mouth. What is important is that you see your veterinarian to do tests and learn more about the tumor. Once you know what it is, knowledge of what to expect is vital. Different tumors and different treatment options have different outcomes. Talk with an oncologist to give you this information and help you make better decisions for your pet and family. Partnering with Pet Cancer Care Consulting can give you this much needed information alongside your veterinarian. Checkout the website for more information.