Oral tumors in dogs and cats

Oral tumors in dogs and cats

Both benign and malignant tumors can arise in almost any area of your pet’s mouth. What causes them, and how can they be treated?

Oral tumors are fairly common in dogs and cats. In fact, benign and malignant growths in the mouth account for 10% of all feline tumors and 6% of all canine tumors. These tumors can arise from virtually any oral structure, including the teeth, gums, bone, tongue or pharynx. In this article, we’ll look at the different types of oral tumors in pets, what causes them, and how they can be treated, both conventionally and naturally.

Types of oral tumor

Malignant melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common oral tumors in dogs, while squamous cell carcinoma is the most common in cats. Other types of cancerous tumors can also be found in a pet’s mouth, including fibrosarcomas, osteosarcomas, mast cell tumors and chondrosarcomas.

Benign or non-cancerous tumors include epulis (a tumor of the periodontal ligament) and fibromas; these tumors tend to have well defined borders and are cured by surgical excision.

Focus on malignant tumors

Malignant melanoma is the most common oral tumor in the dog, with older dogs being over-represented. These tumors are locally invasive and frequently metastasize to regional lymph nodes, or the lungs, before they are diagnosed. They may start as dark lumps on the gums, often on the lower jaw, and frequently involve the bone. Aggressive treatment is necessary to eliminate this tumor.

Squamous cell carcinoma, the most common oral cancer in cats, may occur anywhere within the oral cavity. It is locally invasive, but infrequently metastasizes to regional lymph nodes, and rarely spreads to distant  sites. The most common site of oral squamous cell carcinoma in cats is the sublingual region. This tumor can also occur on the gingival of the upper or lower jaw.

Mouth ulcers and purulent material in the mouth are common with this type of tumor. Sometimes the tumor causes the jaw to appear enlarged as it will invade the bone of either the upper or lower jaw. Oral squamous cell carcinomas grow rapidly, so upon initial presentation the tumor is often extremely advanced, resulting in a grave prognosis.

Conventional treatment for oral tumors

Many different treatments are available, depending on the size and location of the tumor. The first step is surgery to remove the tumor and biopsy it. This is often difficult as wide margins are needed to reduce the possibility of the tumor spreading. In the case of aggressive tumors, parts of the jaw sometimes need to be removed as well.

Surgery is usually followed with chemotherapy, radiation, cryosurgery or even, in the case of melanoma, a special vaccination to prevent growth and recurrence.

Before surgery, your veterinarian will want to do blood testing and x-rays to determine the extent of the tumor and if metastasis has already occurred. In some cases, an ultrasound or CT scan may be indicated.

Natural treatment options

In most cases, natural treatments alone will not cure oral cancers. But they can be used along with conventional medications and surgery to improve outcome.


A good diet is foundational for any pet with cancer. A high quality, balanced homemade diet is an ideal choice. The diet should be high in Omega 3 fatty acids, be grain-free and high in protein; cancer cells thrive on simple carbohydrates and sugars. In addition, the amino acids arginine (an immune system booster) and glutamine (which supports and maintains GI tract health), should be present in the diet. Higher-fat diets — as long as the fat is Omega 3 — help starve the cancer cells of nutrients so their growth is reduced, making them more susceptible to chemotherapy. For dogs, a cancer diet should ideally be 50% high quality, human grade protein and 40% Omega 3 fatty acids, with the remainder as complex carbohydrates. For cats, the protein should be 70% and the fat close to 30%, with few carbohydrates at all.

Herbs and supplements

a) Medical mushroom extracts — many types of mushrooms are used to prevent and treat cancers. Anti-cancer, anti-tumor, and antibacterial compounds are found in the stalk, caps, gills, and even the underground structures (mycelia) of every edible mushroom.

Maitake (Grifolia frondosa), Reishii (Ganoderma lucidum), Shiitake (Lentinus edodes), Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), and Coriolus (Coriolus versicolor) are the most common mushrooms used. They inhibit tumor growth, build powerful immunity and reduces the risk of cancer. Be sure to cook your dog’s mushrooms; avoid serving them raw as this may increase cancer risk.

b) Boswellia sacra — The resin of the Boswellia plant is a natural anti-inflammatory and suppresses the 5-LOX system. When the 5-LOX system is stimulated, it increases cancerous growths.

c) Artemisinin — This Chinese herb has been shown to destroy many types of cancer cells. Artemisinin seems to target cancer cells while not harming normal cells.

d) Fish oil — High doses of Omega 3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) at 100mg per kg has been shown to decrease inflammation. Fish oils don’t interfere with any kind of therapy, including chemo and radiation.

e) Co-enzyme Q10 — In high doses, it seems to be effective for oral tumors.

f) Curcumin — a useful supplement that seems to slow the progression of tumors by various mechanisms.

Symptoms of oral tumors

Some common symptoms of oral tumors in dogs and cats are:

  • A mass or lump in the oral cavity
  • Excess drooling, blood in the saliva, or bad breath
  • Swelling of the face or bulging of an eye
  • Bloody nasal discharge
  • Difficulty eating or pain on opening the mouth
  • Weight loss. and enlarged lymph nodes in the neck region
  • Loose teeth, especially in an animal with generally good teeth; may be indicative of cancer-induced bone loss, especially in cats

Keep in mind that many of these symptoms may also signal severe dental disease. Either way, if your pet has any of these symptoms it is important to visit the veterinarian for an examination of his mouth. Any lumps found in the mouth should be biopsied.

What causes oral tumors?

In general, these are tumors of older animals. There is no breed or sex predilection. Although several environmental risk factors have been recognized, the cause of oral tumors remains poorly defined. Various potential contributing factors include:

    1. Second hand smoke — one clinical study showed that pets exposed to tobacco smoke are five times more likely to develop oral tumors.
    2. Flea collars — cats that wore flea collars were found to be five times as likely to develop oral tumors as cats that did not.
    3. Diet problems — cats who eat canned tuna or 100% commercial canned diets have an increased risk of squamous cell carcinoma. Some types of commercial dog foods with high levels of preservatives can also increase the risk of oral tumors.

When it comes to oral tumors in dogs and cats, early diagnosis is crucial. Have your pet examined as soon as possible if he shows any signs of possible oral cancer. Whichever treatment is used, supporting the animal’s overall health with the right food and supplements can help maintain his quality of life.

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