Dog Tumors:
Diagnosis & Treatment

A tumor appeared on the toe of our lab, Yale, who was 14 years old.

Dog tumors are one type of cancer that attacks our best friends. One in every three dogs will get cancer; 50% of these dogs will die from cancer. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, cancer is the cause of nearly half of the deaths of dogs 10 years and older. Early detection is essential to slowing and controlling the disease.

Snapshot: Dog Tumors
Here's a quick overview if you're in a hurry. Come back later when you have time to read the complete guide.

  • Detection/Symptoms: Brushing your dog on a regular basis is a good way to detect dog tumors and other abnormalities on the body. Look for swelling, lumps, sores that don't heal, weight loss, lack of interest in food, problems breathing and bleeding from any bodily opening.
  • Diagnosis: Your veterinarian can confirm a dog tumor through an x-ray, blood test and ultrasound. To diagnose whether or not the tumor is cancerous, your vet will need to surgically take a tissue sample or biopsy from the tumor. This sample is sent to a lab for analysis.
  • Treatment: The type of conventional treatment will depend on whether the cancerous dog tumor is confined to one area or has spread (metastasized) into other areas of the body. Conventional treatment includes surgery, radiation and chemotherapy--the same treatments used in people--and often used in combination. Non-conventional treatment can include herbs or tea pills used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.(See my positive experience with this approach later on this page.)

Dog Tumors Defined

Benign dog tumors are non-cancerous and grow in one area. They usually are not a serious health threat. In contrast, malignant tumors metastasize (spread) from the area where they first appear into other areas of the body. For instance, a cancerous tumor on the back may spread into the stomach, lungs or other areas.


Brushing your dog on a regular basis is a good way to detect dog tumors and other abnormalities on the body. Look for swelling, lumps, and sores that don't heal. Other signs include weight loss, lameness, lack of interest in food, problems breathing and bleeding from any bodily opening. Look for changes in behavior or in routine. I once had a coworker whose dog stopped climbing onto her favorite chair to nap. An X-ray at the vet clinic revealed cancerous tumors in several organs. So take note when you see changes in your dog or his/her behavior.


Your veterinarian can confirm the presence of a dog tumor through an x-ray, blood test or ultrasound. However, you cannot tell by looking at a tumor whether or not it is malignant. To make a diagnosis, your vet will need to do a biopsy, which means surgically removing a tissue sample and sending it to a laboratory. This sample is examined to determine if the cells are cancerous.

As an alternative, your vet can do a needle aspirate, which involves inserting a needle into the tumor to take a cell sample. This is sent to a laboratory to determine if it is cancer. While a needle aspirate is an effective diagnostic tool, only a biopsy will reveal the extent of the cancer—whether the cancer is contained or has spread to other organs. A biopsy also shows whether or not all of the tumor was completely removed. If the biopsy shows some of the tumor was missed, you may choose a second surgery to remove the remainder of the tumor. Your decision will likely be based on a number of factors, including the age of your dog, his/her general health and prognosis for recovery.

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Conventional Treatment

The same methods used to treat cancerous tumors in people are also used to treat dogs. The goal of treatment is to remove or reduce the cancerous tumor while minimizing the impact on the surrounding, healthy tissue.

  • Surgery: The precision of laser surgery enables veterinary surgeons to completely remove some tumors. In most cases, however, radiation or chemotherapy will be recommended in addition to, or instead of, surgery. Even one missed cancerous cell can lead to the return of disease.
  • Radiation: Radiation is often used on cancerous tumors that are inoperable because they surround nerves or organs. In the past, conventional beam radiation has been used selectively because of the lack of control in "targeting" the radiation to the diseased area. Instead, the radiation would overflow to the surrounding healthy tissue.Recent years have seen the development of new radiation equipment called linear accelerators. These machines allow radiologists to direct the radiation at the tumor without spilling onto healthy tissue. Radiation equipment is expensive and those who use it are specialists. This means you will in most cases need to travel to a veterinary teaching hospital or an animal clinic that specializes in cancer treatment. Your veterinarian can refer you to the nearest one.
  • Chemotherapy: This type of therapy is often used when a cancerous dog tumor has metastasized or spread throughout the dog's body. Pet cancer specialists like Dr. Chun at Kansas State University's Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital report that side effects occur less frequently with pets than they do with people. Chemotherapy drugs are sometimes used in combination with surgery or radiation.

Alternative Treatment

As I mention throughout this web site, good nutrition is the foundation of your dog's health. It is especially important to feed your best friend top-quality food if your dog is diagnosed with cancer. A food that is high in protein, low in carbohydrates and moderate in fats is the best choice. Excellent examples of high quality dog foods include Blue Buffalo Wilderness and Wellness Core Original.

While conventional dog tumor treatments are successful in helping many dogs recover from cancer, alternative therapies can be effective in helping the dog feel better and improving quality of life. These therapies include acupuncture and massage, herbs such as echinacea and milk thistle and supplements that include selenium, an antioxidant.

For more information on using non-conventional therapies, contact one or more of the following organizations to find a veterinarian near you. 
The American Holistic Veterinary Association
American Veterinary Chiropractic Association
American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture

My Experience

While most everyone in Eastern Iowa remembers June 2008 for the historic flood, I will always think of it as the summer when our 14-year-old lab Yale (shown here) beat cancer. In March 2008, a small tumor appeared on the outside toe of Yale’s back right foot. We went to see our vet, who aspirated the tumor. Test results showed the tumor was cancer. Our vet, my husband Mike and I all agreed that surgery was not the best option for an old girl like Yale. So I called my friend Linda, who practices Traditional Chinese Medicine. She had helped our dog Babe beat kidney failure and live to the age of 17, so turning to her seemed a natural course of action.

Linda prescribed Chai hu shu gan wan, a herb in the form of small pellets. After two weeks, the tumor was miraculously gone. We returned to our vet, who shared our amazement. We kept Yale on the herbs for quite a few weeks. By the end of May 2008, the tumor was completely gone. We took Yale off the herbs.

This proved to be a huge mistake. In less than a week the tumor was back with a vengeance. It grew quickly and aggressively (see photo at top of page). We immediately put Yale back on the herbs but also visited a veterinary surgeon, rethinking the surgery issue and wondering if the tumor could be defeated by taking off the outside toe. This vet's specialty is orthopedic surgery. He has operated on many of our foster dogs with great results.

At that point the tumor was red, oozing, and had an unbelievably foul odor. And it was huge. Upon examining the tumor, the surgeon did not advise removing it because it had grown into the second toe, which was weight-bearing. He was afraid Yale would not be able to walk if he removed the two toes. So he gave us an antibiotic (he said the tumor was infected, which was causing the smell) and Tramadol for Yale’s pain.

The next two weeks were hell. I held down Yale, who cried and thrashed on the couch, while Mike changed the bandage. We wrapped the foot with lots of padding, yet the oozing would eventually break through. We changed the bandage 2-3 times daily.

Somewhere around the second week, we noticed Yale did not seem to mind changing the bandage. We noticed the tumor was not oozing through the bandage anymore. We also thought the tumor looked slightly smaller, but we were afraid our hope was clouding our sight.

It turned out our eyesight was just fine. Over the next few weeks we watched as the tumor continued to shrink. At eight weeks, the tumor was completely gone. Yale enjoyed a total recovery and we were lucky enough to have our wonderful friend with us for four more quality years until her body simply gave out and she passed away. Those last four years were a wonderful gift thanks to Linda, her knowledge and her Chinese herbs.

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