Canine Oral Melanoma

Canine oral melanoma, cancer of the cells that produce melanin, is one of the most common malignancies of the mouth and must be treated as early as possible in order to save your dog's life. Oral melanomas occur on the lips, gums, palate and tongue. They may appear as pigmented or unpigmented lesions. As oral melanomas grow, they can spread to the jaw, neck and head. They can metastasize to any part of the dog's body, including the lymph nodes, lungs, liver and kidneys. The longer canine oral melanomas grow and the farther they spread, the more difficult it will be for any kind of treatment to halt the devastating effects on your dog's health. The life expectancy of a dog with advanced canine oral melanoma may be as little as five months.

Prevalence of Oral Melanomas

Dogs most prone to canine oral melanoma are older dogs with dark pigmentation of the mouth. In addition, the incidence of canine melanoma is higher in some breeds than others. Check with your vet to see if your dog is at greater risk of contracting canine melanoma.

Routine Dental Exams

Oral melanomas may be difficult for you to spot. Routine dental cleanings and exams are critical in detecting cancerous mouth tumors early.


Even though melanomas of the mouth may not be visible, you should remain vigilant to the following symptoms of oral cancer, promptly reporting any of them to your vet:

  • 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

Diagnosis of Canine Oral Melanoma

After examining your dog and identifying suspicious lesions, the vet will take a biopsy of your dog's mouth tissue to determine whether a growth is benign, pre-cancerous or cancerous. A pathologist will assess the type of mouth cancer present and an oncologist will assess the stage of malignancy. Your dog may undergo CT scans of the jaw, x-rays and further blood tests to document the severity and location of  metastasized oral cancer.

Improving Survival Rates

Localized oral melanoma is treated by removing cancerous lesions and surrounding tissue, sometimes necessitating removal of part of the jaw or face. After surgery, or if surgery is not possible, radiation is used to destroy a tumor. Recurrence is common, however, so your dog's vet may order chemotherapy and immunotherapy as well.

Oral Melanoma Vaccine Shows Promise

A new oral melanoma vaccine, also referred to as "immunotheraphy," does not protect your dog from contracting mouth cancer, as the name might suggest. Instead, the vaccine spurs your dog's immune system into action to fight cancerous cells. Early research results show that life expectancy for a dog with advanced oral melanoma may increase to approximately a year, compared to five months without the therapy. Therapeutic use of the oral melanoma vaccine to treat the disease in earlier stages is being explored.

Quality of Life of Older Dogs

If your dog suffers from complications of oral melanoma late in life, you and your vet will have to weigh whether treatment will place added physical and emotional hardship on your dog with little to no benefit.