When you hear the term melanoma, your mind may automatically go to skin cancer, as in humans. While your dog can get melanoma of the skin, these tumors are often benign. Malignant melanoma in dogs occurs most frequently, however, in the mouth. Because of this, it's often not detected until it reaches the late stages of the disease. While a vaccine is available in the early stages, it is not a preventative vaccine.
Oral malignant melanoma in dogs can cause bad breath, difficulty eating, weight loss, bleeding from the mouth and excessive drooling. Facial swelling may occur with large tumors. In the even the melanoma spreads to the lungs, breathing may become difficult.
When it comes to canine melanoma, certain breeds are at a greater risk of developing the condition. At risk breeds include poodles, dachshunds, Scottish terriers, golden retrievers, chow chows, Dobermans, cocker spaniels, Airedale terriers, boxers and Irish setters. Dogs with dark skin pigments are also at greater risk.
Surgery to remove the tumors is the recommended course of action with oral melanoma. The goal is to remove all of the tumor, as well as surrounding tissue. If complete tumor removal is not possible or the melanoma has spread to the lymph nodes, radiation therapy follows surgery. Unlike other cancers, canine melanoma appears resistant to chemotherapy. Depending on the stage of melanoma, a vaccine may be recommended.
The prognosis for malignant melanoma depends on what stage it was in when diagnosed and treated. For stage one, the prognosis is roughly a year. In cases of stage four, survival rates are less than a month. Early detection is essential to increase survival chances. Regular dental visits with your veterinarian increase the chances of finding early stage tumors.
The melanoma vaccine is not like your dog’s typical vaccines in that it does not prevent melanoma. It instead is a form of immunotherapy and activates your dog’s immune system to control the growth of melanoma cells. Prescribed to dogs in stage two or three that have had successful surgery and radiation treatments, the vaccine is given every two weeks, for four doses. Additional boosters are administered every six months for the remainder of the dog’s life. In many cases, the vaccine extends the prognosis for as much as a year.
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