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Canine Cancer: What To Expect

dog cancer
Did You Know that 75% of Golden Retrievers will have cancer during their lifetime?


Unlike most other animals, dogs are susceptible to the same types of cancers as humans. For example, dogs are the only non-human species that are at risk for prostate cancer. Dogs are also at risk for include bladder, brain tumors, lymphoma, lung cancer, mammary carcinoma, mast cell tumors, skin cancer, testicular cancer and bone cancer.

Having your dog diagnosed with cancer is devastating, but don’t lose hope. Modern veterinary technology and medicine have made the prognosis of a cancer diagnosis far more positive. In most cases your dog will have access to the same type of treatments and medications that are available to humans including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

In the past few years, cancer-related veterinary costs have skyrocketed. Part of the reason for the rising cost is advancement in diagnostics and treatments. Vets can find cancer earlier and treat it more effectively.

Unfortunately, that leaves you in the waiting room thinking about how long the road to recovery will be, and how much it will cost.

But now that you’re here, let’s go over what your options are as a pet parent.

Facts About Dog Cancer

Cancer is not an easy thing to face, whether it strikes us, a family member or our beloved dog. It does, unfortunately, happen. According to the Veterinary Cancer Society (VCS), approximately one in four dogs develop some form of cancer during their lifetime. In dogs over the age of ten, the estimate jumps to as much as 50 percent. The VCS estimates cancer as the leading cause of death in 47% of dogs.

  • An estimated six million dogs will be diagnosed with cancer this year
  • Roughly one in three dogs die of cancer, which is the same rate as people, some breeds, however, are more susceptible than others
  • Cancer is the leading cause of death in dogs over 10 years old

Source: National Canine Cancer Foundation

Types of Canine Cancer

Just like humans, cancer can affect any part of your dog’s body. In fact there are nearly 100 types of animal cancer. Cancer in pets can be found in the skin, bones, breast, head & neck, lymph nodes, abdomen and testicles. Here are some of the most common types of dog cancer and the incidence rates across all breeds and ages (IR % is incidence rate of test population).

Incident Rates by Type

Lymphoma and skin cancer are the most common type of dog cancers, however, there are many other types of canine cancer that are common in over 1 in 10 dogs. Here is a quick overview of some of the more common types of dog cancer.

When compared to other companion animals, dogs develop more forms of cancer than other animals. One-third of all cancerous tumors in dogs are skin cancers. These are the most common forms of cancer striking dogs:

  • Lymphoma: 20.1%
  • Skin Tumors: 19.9%
  • Male Genital Cancer: 16.8%
  • Soft Tissue (e.g. Heart, Liver): 13.2%
  • Lip, Oral, Pharynx: 10.5%
  • Other Sites: 6.0%
  • Digastric Organs: 5.2%
  • Bones and Cartilage: 3.6%
  • Mammary Tumors: 2.2%
  • Respiratory Organs: 1.9%
  • Prostate: 0.7%
  • Total: 100.0%

Source: National Institutes of Health


This type of cancer manifests as swelling or enlargement of one or more lymph nodes. There are 30 different types of lymphoma in dogs but the four most common are multicentric lymphoma, alimentary lymphoma, mediastinal lymphoma and extranodal lymphoma. The most common treatment for canine lymphoma is chemotherapy.

Skin Tumors

More common in older dogs, most tumors of the skin are non-cancerous, or benign. Any skin tags, knots, or tumors discovered on or under the skin warrant a trip to your veterinarian to determine if it is a cancerous, or malignant, growth. Skin tumors are very common in older dogs. The most common forms of skin cancer are melanoma and squamous cell sarcoma. Approximately one-third of all tumors in dogs are skin tumors and skin tumors in dogs occur about six times more often than in cats and up to 34 times more than in people. The good news is that only 20-30% of skin tumors are malignant and skin cancer is easily treatable if identified early. Melanoma accounts for 5-7% of all skin cancers in dogs. It is most commonly found in the mouth and toes of dogs. Some breeds that are more prone to melanoma are Scottish Terriers, Cocker Spaniels, Gordon Setters, Chow Chows and Golden Retrievers.


Tumors in the testicles are more commonly found in dogs who suffer with retained testicles, meaning they don’t “drop” or move to their normal positions during growth. Retained testicles are usually located between the abdomen and scrotum or inside the abdomen itself. Testicular cancer is very common in intact male dogs accounting for 90% of all cancers of the male reproductive system. Most tumors are contained to the testes but may spread in 10-20% of cases. Surgery is the most common form of treatment and the prognosis is usually very positive.


Hemangiosarcoma or heart cancer is a malignant cancer that originates in the blood vessels in the heart. It is the most common type of heart cancer in dogs. Heart cancer is more common in large breed dogs like Boxers, German Shepherds and Retrievers.


There is no specific breed that is susceptible to this type of cancer and liver cancer can occur at any age. There are two types of liver cancer in dogs. Primary canine liver cancer means that the cancer started in the liver itself. Metastatic liver cancer is the more common type and means the cancer spread to the liver from another organ. Treatment includes chemotherapy, radiation and surgery to remove the tumor.

Head and Neck

Cancerous lesions in the mouth are common in dogs. Canine fur-babies are also prone to cancerous tumors inside the nose. Dogs five years and older are more susceptible to brain tumors and the median age of affected pets is nine years. Brachycephalic dog breeds are predisposed to developing glial cell tumors and pituitary tumors (the two types of brain tumors). These breeds include Scottish Terriers, Old English Sheepdogs, Boston Terriers, English Bulldogs, Golden Retrievers, Boxers and Doberman Pinschers.

Abdominal Tumors

These types of tumors are common but can be difficult to diagnose early.


Large breed dogs are more likely to develop bone cancer, as well as dogs over seven years. The most common sites are the leg bones, near the joints. Osteosarcoma in dogs is the most common type of bone cancer in large breed dogs. It is most commonly found in the long bones in the front and rear limbs but can also be found in the ribs, skull or spine. Giant dog breeds, like Great Danes are far more likely to be affected than toy breeds. Most dogs are diagnosed with bone cancer between 7-10 years of age. If the cancer were confined to the bone marrow, we would call this leukemia.

Mammary Gland (breast cancer)

Just like humans, dogs can develop breast cancer. Getting your fur-baby spayed before she’s one year old can greatly reduce her risk of mammary gland cancer. Unfortunately, 50 percent of all breast tumors in dogs are malignant. Breast cancer is the most common tumor found in female dogs. The good news is that if mammary cancer is found early in your dog then the prognosis is very positive. The most common type of treatment for breast cancer in dogs is surgical removal of the tumorous cells. Cancer incidence was 3 times higher in female than in male dogs, a difference explained by the high rate of mammary cancer (Source: When Cancer Comes with a Pedigree, WSJ).

Dog Cancer by Breed

Golden retrievers and Boxers have a strong incidence of having dog tumors. This is common for a lot of purebred dogs. Mixed breed dogs come from a much more diverse gene pool, so they’re less likely to get genetic-based cancers.

It is estimated that 75% of Golden Retrievers will contract cancer during their lifetimes. They are the most susceptible dog breed when it comes to canine cancer. Some common forms of cancer in Goldens are bone cancer, cancer of the lymph nodes and cancer of the blood vessels.

Boxers are also more susceptible to cancer than most other breeds. Some common forms of cancer in Boxers include lymphosarcoma, brain cancer and mast cell dog tumors.

According to the National Institute of Health, cancer is most common in pure breeds [1]. And according to one study [2] Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, and Poodles have the highest rate of canine cancer.

Of course, many factors contribute to canine cancer like diet and the environment. But higher rates of cancer in purebred dogs indicate there is a genetic factor as well.

Knowing that your pet is likely to develop cancer can make anyone anxious. Luckily, pet insurance covers nearly all medical bills from canine cancer. But as we mention  here, no company will cover a pre-existing condition. If your pet is one of the breeds likely to develop cancer, make sure you’re covered before it’s too late.

Incidence Rates by Age

According to the SPCA nearly 50% of pets over the age of 10 will develop some type of cancer. The fact is that as your dog gets older the likelihood of them getting cancer rises significantly over time. Here is a breakdown of cancer incidence rates by age for male and female dogs.

Age GroupMaleFemale
0 - 35.7%3.1%
> 3 - 57.0%6.0%
> 5 - 712.4%13.2%
> 7 - 923.0%25.5%
> 9 -1121.9%25.2%
> 1130.0%27.1%

Source: Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine

Signs of Cancer in Dogs

The best way to ensure your dog survives a cancer diagnosis is early detection. Just as in humans, catching the tumor while it is small and before it spreads improves chances of a cure. The key is to recognize a change in your pet – in appearance, in how he or she is feeling or acting. If the change doesn’t resolve in a day or two, take action.

Early detection is critical. Finding a lump or mass on your dog doesn’t automatically mean he or she has cancer. It means you should take your fur-baby to a veterinarian for an examination right away.

The American Veterinary Medical Association lists ten common signs of cancer in dogs.

Abnormal Swelling

Your veterinarian should investigate any mass, regardless of size, that persists or continues to grow. It probably needs surgical removal and biopsy.

Areas that Don’t Heal

Wounds or sores normally will heal with a topical ointment applied for a few days or oral antibiotics. It’s those that don’t heal that are reason for concern. This is especially true of sores near a nail that don’t heal.

Unexplained Weight Loss

If your dog is losing weight because of a weight-loss program, you expect him or her to drop a few pounds. It is when weight loss occurs unexpectedly that alarm bells should go off. Especially if your dog is eating well but losing weight, a trip to the vet is a good idea.

Loss of Appetite

When there’s a problem in a dog’s digestive tract, one of the first signs is a loss of appetite. Refusing to eat for a day or two may be a passing condition, but if the loss of appetite continues longer, definitely get your fur-baby to the vet as soon as possible.

Difficulty Eating or Swallowing

Should your dog develop a mass in his or her neck, it can make eating and swallowing uncomfortable. You may notice your fur-baby trying to eat but throwing up instead. This is a sign that should trigger a vet visit.

Bleeding or Discharge

If you notice bleeding or a discharge from any body opening – nose, mouth, ear, tear ducts, anus, penis, vagina – don’t ignore it. Unless a female dog is in heat, there should be no bleeding or discharge. Bleeding may not necessarily indicate cancer, but the cause needs identification, followed by proper treatment.


Dogs normally have “dog breath,” and who can resist “puppy breath?” These are normal smells in a healthy dog. It’s when these odors become offensive that we need to take notice. If your dog passes gas, and the smell clears the room, there may be a problem in his or her digestive tract. Your veterinarian needs to evaluate any offensive odors from the ears, feet, or any lumps or sores.


A fur-baby who is reluctant to play or exercise, or who exhibits a loss of stamina when trying to engage in fun activities, could be harboring a tumor internally. Your vet should evaluate

Persistent Lameness or Stiffness

Bone cancer, one of the more common types of dog cancer, can cause pain in bones and joints. You may notice your dog limping or exhibiting stiffness in a leg or joint.

Difficulty Breathing, Urinating or Defecating

If your dog is having difficulties with any of these bodily functions, there could be a problem brewing inside them. Your veterinarian needs to take a look to find out what’s going on.

Early detection gives your pet the best chance for survival. Pay attention to your fur-baby and don’t assume its just a temporary thing that will clear up in a day or two. When it doesn’t, it’s time to act. Your dog depends on you to keep him or her safe and healthy; don’t let them down.

Lab Tests and Diagnosis

There are a variety of ways to properly diagnose canine cancer depending on your dog’s symptoms and the type of cancer present. Here are the most common ways that a vet or oncologist can identify dogs with cancer.

  • Physical Exam
  • Biopsy
  • Lab Tests
  • X-Rays
  • MRI
  • Blood Tests
  • Ultrasounds
  • Urinalysis

Treatment Options

If your dog receives a cancer diagnosis, it’s time to decide whether to treat your pet or not. These difficult decisions are usually rooted in the expected outcome of treatment and the quality of life the dog can expect afterward. Most cancers caught early are treatable with a high success rate.

There are multiple methods for treating canine cancer. Discuss all your options with your veterinarian when deciding on a plan for treating your baby. Approaches to dog cancer treatment include the following:


Performing surgery to remove as much cancer as possible is usually part of any treatment plan. It can be recommended on its own, or alongside chemotherapy and radiation therapy.


Chemotherapy to treat cancer in dogs comes with fewer side effects than treating humans. This is because veterinarians administer smaller doses, so dogs aren’t overly uncomfortable. Of course, there are slight side effects like nausea and reduced appetite. But those usually don’t last longer than 24 hours after the chemotherapy session. And most dogs do not lose their coat. There may be some thinning, but generally, the dose is too small to cause major hair loss.

Radiation Therapy

While chemotherapy is a general medicine for your dog, radiation therapy targets cancer in the body. Dogs are given a sedative to keep them from moving while they undergo radiation treatment. Again, there are generally minimal long-term side effects.

Treatment for canine cancer is different from treatment for humans in one significant way – aggressiveness. Humans can endure much more discomfort than our dogs because we understand that the pain of aggressive treatment is worth it. Dogs, on the other hand, don’t know what’s going on, so vets pay much more attention to the quality of life during cancer treatment.

Radioactive Iodine Therapy

This is an effective treatment method for canine thyroid tumors. The vet injects the radioiodine under the skin, where it’s taken up by the thyroid and destroys the cancer cells there. The radioiodine is then flushed from the dog’s body over a period of several days.


Your veterinarian will determine if this is a viable option.


This treatment uses liquid nitrogen or nitrous oxide to freeze the tumor or unwanted tissue. The frozen tissue then falls off or dissolves.


A specially trained veterinary oncologist can treat dog cancer with heat, usually generated from microwave radiation, ultrasound waves, radio frequencies or infrared radiation.


This is a relatively new form of treatment, approved for use in dogs in 2014. Immunotherapy uses antibodies to treat cancer in dogs.

Cost of Treatment

Depending on the severity and type of cancer treatments can include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery or a combination. The cost to treat canine cancer also depends on the severity and type.

Diagnostics cost $200 and up, depending on the location of the cancer. In some cases you may need a combination of tests including x-rays, blood tests and lab work.

Surgery to remove a tumor deep in the body, or that requires reconstruction, usually starts at about $1,500. Major surgery to remove tumors usually starts around $2,000 to $3,000.

Chemotherapy depends on the size of the dog, and usually ranges from $200 to $2,000 and up, for three to six months of treatment, which is $9,700 for a one-time cancer treatment. In many cases 2-3 rounds of treatment may be necessary before your dog is in remission.

Radiation therapy is generally the most expensive type of treatment and one session can range from $2,000 to $6,000.

Cost to Treat: $5,000 to $20,000

Real Life Story

A family was worried when they found a lump on their dog Riley’s leg. After taking Riley to the vet, they learned he had Osteosarcoma, a malignant tumor on Riley’s bone. After deciding to treat cancer, they paid a total of $5,793.69. That covered surgery, follow-up visits, chemotherapy, medication, antibiotics, more medicine, and a Wendy’s burger to jumpstart Riley’s appetite after chemotherapy.

Unfortunately, they were not covered by pet insurance, so $5,783.69 was an out-of-pocket expense.

If they had been covered by pet insurance, they could’ve had nearly all of that cost covered.

If they had been covered by Trupanion with a deductible of $500, the cost to get Riley healthy and back home would have gone from $5,793.69 to $1,029.40. That is 82% savings.

Of course, every insurance claim is different. But there is no doubt that Riley could have received the same lifesaving treatment for much less. And with our comparison tool, they would’ve been able to find coverage that fits in their monthly budget.


The goal of dog cancer treatment is to prevent tumorous cells from spreading. The best word a dog parent can hear is, “remission,” which means your dog’s cancer has been stopped. Complete remission is when all signs of cancer are gone. Cancer is an awful disease, but the good news for dog owners today is that treatment has never been better.

The prognosis of your dog’s recovery is dependent on three major factors. First, early detection is key to a successful outcome. Early detection will allow your dog’s oncologist to treat tumors before the cancer cells have spread.

The second factor in your dog’s prognosis is the type of cancer. Some forms of cancer are far more difficult to treat based on the nature of the disease and/or the location of the tumor. For example, skin cancer is very dangerous, but also very easy to access from a surgical and treatment perspective, whereas treatment for liver or heart cancer is far more complex.

The third and final factor that will determine the prognosis of your dog’s cancer is the treatment itself. Unfortunately, the financial commitment and your financial status play a big role in the prognosis for your dog. If you have pet insurance or enough money to pay for expensive treatment out of pocket then your dog will get the best care possible. The fact remains that treating dog cancer is extremely expensive and vet hospitals and oncologists will not treat your dog without payment.

Helping Your Dog Recover

Your dog will be counting on you to support him or her during the recovery period after cancer treatments. One of the main focus of any treatment plan has to be the care provided in the post-treatment period.

One of the top priorities for any dog, regardless of treatment method, is the need to maintain a balanced diet. Malnutrition in the aftermath of cancer treatments is an avoidable consequence. You’ll need to discuss your dog’s specific nutritional requirements with your vet, but here are a few general tips to maintain a balanced diet for your pet:

  • stay with a high quality commercial diet if your veterinarian agrees
  • if you choose a homemade diet for your pet, be certain your veterinarian approves to avoid missing any key nutrients
  • the addition of antioxidants to your fur-baby’s diet should be only on advice of your vet
  • the supplements Omega-3 fish oil and L-arginine do not interfere with the effectiveness of treatment

Make certain you have realistic expectations for your dog’s recovery period. Understand that your dog may experience side effects and not feel well during this time. Be patient, loving and attentive during this trying time.

This is an emotional time for you. It’s understandable that you may lose track of information. To prevent this, and to help you keep things organized, maintain a journal that records every treatment, when your dog received it and any side effects that developed. This is important information that you’ll want to communicate to your veterinarian.

Make certain your dog has a clean, comfortable place to rest and sleep. Whether he or she has a crate or a bed of their own, or is a companion in your bed, make certain his or her space is fresh, clean, dry and comfortable.

Be Financially Prepared

Our pets are part of our families and we want to take care of them. That can get expensive. Just as we do for ourselves, we can prepare for devastating diagnoses like cancer with quality pet insurance coverage. For a quote on a policy to fit your needs, go here.

Pet Health Insurance

If you’re prepared enough to have a pet insurance plan prior to your dog being diagnosed with cancer, then you can breathe easy. However, you must be enrolled while your dog is healthy or cancer coverage will be excluded because pet insurance companies do not cover pre-existing conditions.

Here is a simple example of how pet insurance claims work. Pet insurance companies pay claims based on your actual, total veterinary bills for cancer treatment.

Veterinary Financing

Some vet clinics and hospitals offer veterinary financing options that allow you to pay expensive bills over time. These options can be better than using a credit card because they offer a grace period to repay the balance and interest rates are generally lower than the APR of a credit card. They’re not ideal, but certainly an upgrade over coming out of pocket or racking up credit card bills.

Credit Cards and Cash

Probably the most common and straightforward way dog owners pay for cancer treatment. However, the downside is that racking up credit card bills is never a good idea and most dog owners don’t want to write checks for thousands of dollars. This is how 90% of pet owners pay for major cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Charities and Crowdfunding

If you don’t have the funds or access to money then there are charities and crowdfunding websites that can help you raise money to pay for your dog’s cancer treatment. We’re actually very supportive of campaigns that help provide life-saving cancer treatment for rescue dogs.

Get Involved: Canine Cancer Awareness

Sadly, our furry friends are just as susceptible as humans to get cancer. As you’ve read, cancer is one of the most common causes of death in dogs. The good news is that there are several organizations in the U.S. that are spending time and money on cancer research for companion animals.

These R&D efforts and modern technological advances have made treatment for cancer possible. Today there are specialty clinics all over the country that specialize in oncology. Treatments for cancer in pets include radiology, chemotherapy and surgery.

In many cases the same companies helping to treat humans are providing tools and medications for our pets. Canine cancer is a lot more prevalent that many pet parents realize. That is why we appreciate and support National Pet Cancer Awareness month in November.

Insure Your Dog Here

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Additional Sources:

  • [1]
  • [2]

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