Three Common Signs of Oral Cancer

By: MJ Redman, DVM

TVMA Member
San Antonio, TX.

Published August 2017

The oral cavity is the fifth most common site for cancer in dogs and the third most common site for cats. Most oral tumors are treatable if detected early, and there are a variety of treatment options that can help most pets.

The term “cancer” is generally reserved for malignant tumors, which are those that can metastasize or spread to other parts of the body. Neoplasia is an abnormal growth of tissue, and if that tissue forms a mass, it is called a tumor. Doctors often use the term “epulis” to describe a mass on the gum tissue, giving off the perception that the growth is benign. However, an epulis is any abnormal growth on the gum tissue, but whether that growth is benign or malignant can only be determined by further testing.

Common Oral Tumors and Types of Cancer in Dogs and Cats

One of the most common growths in a dog’s mouth is a canine acanthomatous ameloblastoma, a slow-growing tumor. It can look innocent, but it is highly invasive. Surgical removal is curative but usually requires removing the tumor as well as a small margin of surrounding gum tissue, teeth and bone. It is best to remove these tumors when they are small.

The most common oral cancer in cats is squamous cell carcinoma, which also occurs in humans. This is a very aggressive cancer, but treatments such as surgery and pain medication help prolong the cat’s life. Some benign inflammatory conditions can resemble squamous cell carcinoma, making a biopsy vital for an accurate diagnosis. For most oral tumors in cats and dogs, we do not know the underlying cause or ways to prevent occurrence. Squamous cell carcinoma in cats is unique in that we know that exposure to cigarette smoke is a strong risk factor.

Clinical Signs of Oral Cancer

The three most common signs of a malignant oral tumor are:

  1. Swelling on the gums or jawbone: The swelling may look like normal gum tissue or be inflamed, bleeding or have a dark discoloration. The swelling can occur on the gums, tongue or roof of the mouth. Sometimes oral tumors are mistaken for a wound or an abscessed tooth because both can lead to swelling or bleeding. Some oral tumors cause teeth to loosen, a clinical sign that mimics periodontal disease. Others manifest themselves as an extraction site that will not heal.
  2. Foul-smelling breath: Bad breath is never normal for a dog or cat, but a tumor can smell like rotten meat because it contains dead tissue.
  3. Reluctance to eat: A dog or cat that used to eat dry food or crunchy treats may refuse to eat anything but soft food. They may take only small bites because it is painful to open their mouths.

Diagnostic Procedures and Treatment Options

If you notice any of these clinical signs in your pet, have your pet examined by a veterinarian immediately. The first step is to get a diagnosis. While some oral tumors have a distinctive appearance, most do not. A biopsy or complete removal of the mass (if it is small enough) is necessary to determine what kind of tumor is present. The biopsy involves removing a piece of tissue and sending it to a laboratory for analysis. Dental radiographs may be used to determine if the tumor involves the bone. Sometimes more than one biopsy is necessary to reach a diagnosis.

If a malignancy is present, metastasisthe development of secondary malignant growths at a distance from a primary site of cancer may be detected by taking X-rays of the chest or using a needle to collect cells from a lymph node. If pets exhibit signs of discomfort, they may require prescribed pain medication and/or antibiotics while waiting for results. Depending on the diagnosis, further surgery or tests like a CT scan are recommended. Complete removal of some oral tumors can result in a cure, so it is important not to delay the process of diagnosis and treatment.

MJ Redman, DVM, is a graduate of Washington State University who lives in San Antonio, Texas. Dr. Redman practices at MissionVet Specialty & Emergency and specializes in veterinary dentistry and oral surgery.

12 Responses

  1. Cordell says:

    My dog has really bad breath but doesn’t have any signs of a tumor what else can be causing his breath to be so bad

    • Siobhan Mulholland says:

      I would take your dog to the vets to be sure. Our Sheltie is really old we rescued her 3 years ago and has always had bad breath (also other symptoms) but she had an infection in her stomach and was given antibiotics which helped. Her breath smelt better and also her toilets as well as her vomiting stopped. She is old and has other things wrong with her now.
      But always best to have them checked by a vet, our vet knew with the smell of her breath what was wrong.

    • Holly soileau says:

      I just found out my dog of 13 years has a tumor under her tongue. Never noticed it but upon a dental cleaning it was found. Now it’s just time until we see the end I will treat her with meds but again I never seen this coming and she had horrible breath to plus her eating and drinking was off, food was only taken in small bites and even drinking was odd. Hope this helps you out

      • Holly says:

        It’s sounds identical to my ginger she is 14 .they found the tumor under tongue while getting a dental clean up because her breath was horrible. The tumor has interfered with drinking and eating she seems to be in pain. It’s hard to euthanize her when she still wants life it’s just life that hurts.we tried antibiotics and prednisone too it still grew now it’s worse.have to do what is right see her soon.

    • Dana Landis says:

      Your dog may have a abscess, gum infection that can be caused by a build up of plaque and tartar on the teeth. Check your pets teeth especially the back ones. Your pets gums should be pink. If there is a build up on the teeth this will cause gum infection and very bad breath from the bacteria. If you do not get the teeth cleaned it can cause other health problems such as heart disease. Many times dental problems can cause watering eyes and other issues. Dental problems can also be very painful . I am not a vet but from my experience I would think your pet needs a dental and antibiotics. If there is not a issue dental issue it could be a digestive issue or some other condition.

  2. Holly says:

    It’s sounds identical to my ginger she is 14 .they found the tumor under tongue while getting a dental clean up because her breath was horrible. The tumor has interfered with drinking and eating she seems to be in pain. It’s hard to euthanize her when she still wants life it’s just life that hurts.we tried antibiotics and prednisone too it still grew now it’s worse.have to do what is right see her soon.

  3. Helen McKinney says:

    My wee dog had alot of teeth out at Xmas, ever since her tongue seems out of control I just assumed it was because she had missing teeth that her tongue was falling out, on Saturday we noticed a large lump on her gum she was took to the vet were he said it was a tumour, I can’t understand how this was not noticed in December as he seems to be very big for 3 months

  4. Sara says:

    My dog had a mouth tumor removed. The vet said it was aggressive and would grow back. That was in Dec. it grew back in Jan. I started the drops from PetS Well-being. It is 4 months past initial RX and surgery. The tumor is large but doesn’t appear to be other places? He’s thin. The tomor bleeds at times. I just wonder if you know anything else I can give him?

  5. Michelle Burnett says:

    My one year old min pin has horrible breath, he’s had bad breath since we got him at 8 weeks old. Now I noticed he already has tarter buildup on his teeth and he only gets hard dog food.

    • Cindy says:

      Sal had horrible bad breath after a teeth cleaning and removal of 14 teeth We noticed noticed a mass on his upper lip. He’s a 10 year old Boston terrier.

  6. Jane Home says:

    My doggie of 13 yrs . Was diagnosed with oral cancer 14 months ago . We immediately put him on CBD powder . He is still alive , takes 4 small walks a day . Eats anything we give him . He looks forward to his mince Kong, after his daily medication … no surgery … just CBD powder , try it , what harm can it do

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