Mast Cell Tumors in Dogs – Symptoms and Treatments

Mast cells are typically found scattered the body (usually in the respiratory and digestive organs), helping it to counter allergies. Comprising of large amounts of histamine, heparin, and protein-dissolving enzymes, they are a key segment of the immune system, helping ward off toxic invaders. However, when cancerous mast cells spread, they cause problems affecting the vital signs and reactions – to name a few, gastric ulcers, allergic indications, erratic heart rate, and hemorrhage. Worst case scenario, the site of the tumors may not even heal easily. When these occur, the quality and length of life, and even the possibility of survival, may be affected.

There is no known specific cause of mast cell tumors (also called mast cell sarcoma or mastocystosis); however, studies point to genetics, as certain breeds are more prone to develop MCT than others. Other possible reasons are over-stimulation of the immune system within a long period of time, or even association with the red or golden-colored fur. MCT is the most common skin cancer in dogs (the cases are most often found in beagles, Boston terriers, bullmastiffs, dachshunds, golden retrievers, and Labrador retrievers, among others), and they mostly occur in the following order: first is the skin, then spleen, liver, then bone marrow. Of the 30% of canine skin tumors, mast cell tumors comprise approximately up to 20% of its cases: half occur on the body (chest, torso area), 40% originate in the limbs and extremities, and the remaining cases sprout on the neck or head.

The signs associated with MCT are evident and unmistakable: clumps and masses of raised pink lumps develop on the skin and in the subcutaneous areas. Post-release of mast cell histamine, there is also the Darier sign – that is, hives might form if the lump is pressed or disturbed. Some might even be ulcerated. However, certainty can only be guaranteed through via aspirating the lump, then biopsy. Other generic tests will follow, such as blood testing, urinalysis, additional aspirate procedures (bone marrow, lymph node), X-rays, and ultrasound.

After the tests have been run, the next step is the grading (whether the tumor is benign or malignant) and staging (the rate of progression) of the MCT.  Grading has three states: a) grade I – they usually are found in the skin and benign, though their size would present a concern during removal; b) grade II – the MCT would reach beyond the subcutaneous layers, show unpredictability, and would manifest signs of malignancy; and c) grade III –  they require intensive treatment as they have permeated many levels of tissues.

Meanwhile, there are five stages to be considered. First is the “0” stage, which occurs when one tumor is completely extracted from the skin, without the lymph nodes getting affected. Stage I still has no effects in the lymph node, and features one tumor still in the skin. Stage II features lymphatic involvement with the presence of a single tumor, while stage III includes multiple subcutaneous tumors that may or may not have seeped into the lymph nodes. Stage IV has 2 sub-stages: the first has no other co-morbid signs developing, and the second has some clinical symptoms manifesting.

For treatment, the individual case has to be evaluated. Usually recovery entails MCT surgical removal: this, if done well, will eliminate the first and second grade tumors. Other means for treatment feature chemotherapy or radiation. For dogs, there are oral prescription medications (tyrosine kinase inhibitors like Kinavet-CA1 and Palladia).

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