Mast Cell Tumors in Dogs: A Sneaky Threat to Your Furry Friend

Mast cell tumors in dogs are like undercover agents, often disguised as harmless lumps but capable of causing serious health issues. As a passionate veterinarian, Dr. Julie Buzby aims to shed light on these tricky tumors by sharing insights into their symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis. Let’s delve deeper into the world of mast cell tumors to ensure your dog’s well-being.

Unraveling Mast Cell Tumors in Dogs

Mast cells, part of the immune system, specialize in eliminating foreign invaders such as parasites and allergens. These white blood cells are loaded with granules containing bioactive substances like histamine and heparin. Under normal circumstances, mast cells degranulate in response to stimuli, resulting in itching, redness, and swelling. However, when mast cells become cancerous, they can form unstable tumor cells that easily degranulate.

When mast cell tumors degranulate, mild symptoms like itching and localized swelling may occur. In more severe cases, dogs can experience gastrointestinal issues, bruising, bleeding, decreased blood pressure, or even sudden death due to an allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.

The Camouflage of Mast Cell Tumors

Mast cell tumors are notorious for their chameleon-like appearance, making them difficult to identify. They can manifest as any type of skin or subcutaneous mass and can occur anywhere on a dog’s body. These tumors vary in size, consistency, elevation, color, and even hairiness. The pictures below illustrate the diverse presentations of mast cell tumors in dogs.

Mast cell tumor images

Given their deceptive nature, many professionals refer to mast cell tumors as “the great pretenders.” Dr. Buzby recounts an incident where a seemingly harmless skin tag turned out to be a cutaneous mast cell tumor. This story exemplifies the ease with which these tumors can be mistaken for benign masses.

Differentiating Mast Cell Tumors

The degree of differentiation, which refers to how closely tumor cells resemble their healthy counterparts, plays a crucial role in determining the behavior and prognosis of mast cell tumors. Well-differentiated tumors are slow-growing and often mistaken for benign masses. Conversely, poorly-differentiated tumors grow rapidly, degranulate more frequently, and tend to be more aggressive.

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While mast cell tumors are typically solitary, dogs can have multiple tumors simultaneously. These tumors can vary in their level of differentiation, meaning a dog may have both well-differentiated and poorly-differentiated mast cell tumors in different areas of the body. In rare cases, mast cell tumors can spread rapidly to lymph nodes, liver, and spleen.

Mast Cell Tumors and Breed Predisposition

Despite their unpredictable nature, mast cell tumors don’t discriminate when it comes to age, gender, or neutering status. However, certain breeds, particularly those with bulldog ancestry, have a higher predisposition to developing these tumors. Examples include Boxers, English Bulldogs, Pugs, and Boston Terriers. Other breeds like Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Shar-peis, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, and Jack Russell Terriers are also more prone to mast cell tumors.

Boston Terrier mast cell tumor

Diagnosing Mast Cell Tumors

Ignoring any new or changing masses on your dog is a risky proposition. As the famous saying goes, “Don’t wait—aspirate!” If you notice a new mass or an existing one transforming in size, color, or consistency, it’s best to schedule a fine needle aspiration (FNA) with your veterinarian. During the FNA procedure, your vet will extract cells from the tumor and examine them under a microscope.

Usually, cytology alone is sufficient to diagnose a mast cell tumor in the clinic. However, if the tumor cells don’t exhibit typical characteristics, further testing or submission to a pathology lab may be necessary. Histopathology, the microscopic examination of tumor tissue, provides crucial information about the tumor’s structure and grade.

Grading and Treatment Options

To determine the grade of mast cell tumors, veterinarians use grading systems that assess differentiation levels and aggressiveness. This information helps guide treatment decisions and predict prognosis.

Surgery is the primary treatment for mast cell tumors, aiming to remove the tumor completely. The surgeon will typically take wide margins around the tumor to increase the chances of complete eradication. In cases of low-grade tumors, surgery alone is often curative. However, if the margins are inadequate, a second surgery or alternative therapies like radiation may be necessary. High-grade tumors or cases with metastasis may require additional consultations with veterinary oncologists for further treatment options, such as chemotherapy or targeted therapy.

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For cases where surgery is not feasible, alternative treatments like radiation therapy or chemotherapy can be explored. Emerging treatments like Stelfonta, an injectable medication directly targeting mast cell tumors, offer promising alternatives to surgery.

Prognosis and Knowing When to Stop Fighting

Prognosis and life expectancy vary based on several factors, including histological grade, tumor location, and breed. Low-grade mast cell tumors, when completely excised, have a minimal chance of recurrence or metastasis. In contrast, high-grade tumors carry a higher risk of metastasis, poorer local control, and shorter survival times. Mast cell tumors in certain locations, like the gastrointestinal tract or internal organs, often lead to a grim prognosis.

Deciding when to stop fighting mast cell tumors is a personal and challenging decision. Your veterinarian and veterinary oncologist can provide guidance and support throughout this process. They can help evaluate your dog’s quality of life and discuss appropriate treatment options or humane euthanasia when necessary. You may also consider consulting with a veterinarian specializing in dog hospice care for additional support and guidance.

Early Action is Key

Considering the multitude of presentations and potential risks associated with mast cell tumors, it’s crucial to take action when you notice any abnormal masses on your dog. Remember, prompt diagnosis through fine needle aspiration can provide peace of mind or initiate early treatment while the tumor is still manageable. Discuss treatment options with your veterinarian and veterinary oncologists to ensure the best outcome for your furry friend.

For more information about mast cell tumors and comprehensive pet care, visit Katten TrimSalon. Don’t let these sneaky tumors catch you off guard—be proactive in safeguarding your dog’s health.

Share Your Story

Have you encountered mast cell tumors in your dog? We’d love to hear your experience or words of encouragement in the comments below. Together, we can support and learn from one another.