Thursday, February 6, 2014

Canine Oral Melanoma | Give Cancer the Paw

Spanky was a victim of oral melanoma.

 Ignorance can reap a bitter harvest.

That's the alternate title of this blog post about my Spanky and his death from canine oral cancer.   

This is not the post I planned to write.  However, I decided to leave out the pathos because what is really important is to make checking inside your dog's mouth a normal weekly activity.

Know what normal looks like and head to the vet immediately if something just doesn't seem right.
At a routine health checkup when he was almost 9 years old, the vet recommended a dental cleaning for my black Lab mix, Spanky.  We were preparing to make a cross country move, so after some discussion about the anesthesia and procedure, I agreed.  We decided that it would be best if his regular vet took care of this instead of having to worry about it after the move when we were getting settled.

Spanky did fine with the cleaning.  When I came to pick him up, he was already out of anesthesia, walking around and charming everyone in the vet clinic.

A few months later we made our move and we soon realized that something was wrong.  Spanky's breath had become killer.  We needed a vet.  ASAP.

There were only two small animal veterinarians in our immediate area.  Note: when you live in a rural area, choices (in many things) are quite limited.  Anyway, one vet came highly recommended by many. 

We told Dr. L about the bad breath and recent dental cleaning.  Spanky had no other symptoms.  So, imagine our shock when we got the diagnosis:  malignant melanoma.    Dr. L called our previous vet who told her that she'd also removed a small "skin tag" from one side of Spanky's upper gum almost on the roof of his mouth.  She not only did not do a biopsy, she did not inform us.

Now Spanky had cancerous growth on the roof of his mouth.  Spanky was scheduled for surgery the next day. Though the surgery appeared successful, the cancerous growth came back with a vengeance.  At the time, chemo and radiation therapies were not recommended.  The cancer was far too aggressive.  

Within five months of diagnosis, Spanky's quality of life was such that we made the very hard decision to let him go.

Even if Spanky's original vet had biopsied the growth and he'd had surgery much sooner, he probably would have only lived a few more months at best.  Canine oral melanoma can be a very fast killer.

The most common oral melanomas are found on the lips, gums, palate and tongue.  They may be pigmented or unpigmented lesions.  As they grow they spread to the jaw, neck and head, plus can metastasize to any part of the dog's body.  The life expectancy of a dog with advanced canine oral melanoma can be as little as five months.

Canine oral melanomas occurs more often in:
  • Black or dark dogs 
  • Male dogs
  • Dogs aged between 9 - 12 years 
Symptoms include:
  • Severe halitosis or bad breath
  • Excessive drooling
  • Bleeding from the mouth
  • Facial swelling
  • Preference for soft food over hard food
  • Chewing changes or difficulties
  • Swallowing difficulties
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Chronic cough
  • Depression and dementia due to neurological changes
Spanky was black, male and nearly 10 years old.  The only symptom Spanky had was the first:  terribly bad breath.  Otherwise he seemed to be in perfect health and spirits.

Standard treatment is surgery to remove the cancerous legion(s) and surrounding tissue.  This sometimes means removal of part of the jaw or face.  Radiation may be prescribed, as well as chemotherapy.  Early research results of a new oral melanoma vaccine may extend life expectancy from five months to about a year. Recurrence of oral melanoma is very common.

I learned the hard way to regularly check my dogs' mouths for signs of anything at all unusual, to make sure my vet checks and keeps me informed.

Since Spanky's ordeal, there have been major developments in fighting cancer.  When caught in time, cancer does not mean a death sentence.

Talking Dogs is participating in the Give Cancer the Paw blog hop, hosted by Pooch Smooches and Peggy's Pet Place.  Join us with a  tribute to a lost pet, personal experiences, tips, research - anything related to pet cancer.

Talking Dogs is the official blog of For Love of a Dog Jewelry.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. Even though we've had one dog pass from osteosarcoma, there are so many other things to watch for. I never knew this or thought about this type of cancer, but you can b be sure I will now, especially since I have seniors. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Yikes! We had no idea about this! I am black, male and almost 10 years old. I better have Ma check my mouth routinely now just in case. Thank you for the information! Great post. I am sharing.
    *Cairn cuddles*

  3. I'm so sorry you had to go through that, but I'm glad you shared the story since this is so important for folks to know. A friend lost her black dog, although a female, to the same thing and she reminds us to check our pup's mouths. I need to get in the habit of doing it on a regular basis though!

  4. So sorry for your loss and what Spanky went through. Great post on what to look for and what to do. As hard as it is to write about our loved ones that we lost it is so helpful to others who don't know these diseases/cancer exist.

  5. Oh, how sad. :( My vet is not able to check my dog Pierson's mouth because Pierson is simply terrified of the vet's office. I brush his teeth almost every day so I will make a point to check the rest of his mouth as well. Maya's too. Thanks for this info!

  6. So sorry for what you and Sparky had to go through :( And, thank you for sharing this info. I had no idea about this type of cancer and it helps so much to know what to look for.

  7. Oh that is so sad! I would have been furious with my vet for not telling me about that. Mom looks in our mouths a lot when we brush our teeth, but there are so many things that can come up in the mouth and other places that sneak in unnoticed. What a handsome boy he was too!

  8. What a sad story :( All the cancerous lesions I've seen in both dogs and cats mouths have been no joke. They are just horrible! I met a dog with jaw cancer once. They were able to remove part of her lower jaw and she lived for a long time afterwards. She might even still be around today, but I don't know. I think this is a great reminder for people who might not know about this sort of thing.

  9. thank you for this important post - had me checking my boys mouths !

  10. Thank you for sharing. It is stories such as Spanky's that can save lives.

  11. Thanks for writing such a useful article and I'm so sorry about Spanky. You are so right about getting used to checking what is normal and what isn't. Particularly as Dawn said, sometimes Vets can't really get a good look in the mouth and of course, we might only see some pets occasionally for a check up and big changes can happen quickly when it comes to teeth and mouths. As well as lumps, quite often I see dogs in for routine vaccination who have big slab fractures off their teeth, which are on the way to developing a tooth root abscess and they are still eating fine, so no one was aware there was a problem until I looked.

    The last little dog I had with a growth on the gum actually had an epulis, which is benign, so luckily not all growths in the mouth are bad.

    Thanks again for the post.

  12. Thank you for sharing this story, I know how difficult it must have been. I remember we had a cat who had this cancer. I remember the awful breath, but it was swelling that really got our attention. By then it was too late for him, and he had other health issues also so we had to let him go. I'm so sorry you lost your Spanky....what a handsome guy he was!

  13. So sorry about Spanky. Thanks for the info on the disease.

    I think it is terrible that the first vet did not share all that happened during the cleaning. May not have changed things, but would have been helpful to know. When Storm had a growth removed from her gum a couple of years ago, we had it biopsied. But knowing the prognosis for oral cancers, we already had decided that if it turned out malignant, we would take a very conservative approach. But we wanted to know what, if anything, we were dealing with.

  14. We had the same with my black lab buster. He developed a small lump on his bottom gum along his teeth which ended up taking over half his mouth quite was very distressing to say the least. It gradually was pushing his teeth out and was coming home to blood on the sofa where he slept. Before you say you should have done the right thing by putting him down he was going through treatment and we was trying to pull him through and spent around £1500 on various vet antibiotics and treatments. It wasn't until he stopped eating and wouldn't even eat things I would cook as a meal for our family that I knew it was time along with the fact I just couldn't let him go. He was 12 yeara old.a year and a bit later I still well up thinking about him. The moment I lifted him out of my car to the very last visit at his vet I couldn't believe how light he felt. I was used to building up the strength to lift him as he was 43 kilos when healthy but must have dropped to at least 20. I sat with him in the vet for the final injection and he raised his head looking for me and I was cradling him. I just wish I did it sooner as although I was trying my best for him all I did was prolong his pain. Miss you buddy!

  15. Thank you for sharing your story.... You have opened my eyes. We are currently going through this with my 11 year old staffy. She has been diagnosed with an oral mouth tumor and there is nothing we can do as it is too far gone. My husband is asking him self how we didn't find it earlier. After reading your story the writing was on the wall. When you put everything together it now makes sense. She is still eating fine and drinking water and happy as normal. We have medication to help with the pain. It has been a rough couple of days for us, but we know when the time comes that we will have to do the unthinkable. She has been a big part of our life for so so long, it will be really hard to let her go when that day comes. I just hope that we get enough time with her to last a life time..

    1. I've just had the call with the dreaded diagnosis. Heart breaking.


Go ahead... bark at us!