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Written by leading veterinarians to provide you with the information you need to care for your pets.

The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

How We Treat Oral Melanoma in Dogs

Melanoma is a cancer of the melanocytes, the pigment-producing cells of the body. The most common site for melanoma tumors to occur in the dog is in the mouth. Melanoma is a very aggressive disease and tumors are often very large, frequently invading the surrounding bones of the oral cavity before they are even detected by an owner or veterinarian.


Oral melanomas also have a high chance of metastasizing (spreading) to other parts of the body. The most common locations for melanoma to spread are lymph nodes within the head and neck, and the lungs. Certain breeds are more likely to develop melanoma tumors than others, including poodles, dachshunds, Scottish terriers, and golden retrievers.


The size of the tumor is important in considering the overall prognosis for canine oral melanomas. Veterinary medicine has adopted the World Health Organization’s staging system, where Stage I disease is represented by a tumor less than 2 cm in diameter, Stage II is represented by tumors 2-4 cm in diameter, and Stage III tumors are 4 cm or larger, or are any type of tumor with local lymph node involvement. Stage IV disease includes any tumor with evidence of distant spread.


The primary treatment for oral melanoma in dogs is surgical removal of the tumor. However, since the majority of tumors invade the boney structures of the jaw, even with very aggressive surgical measures, complete resection (removal) can be difficult.


The average survival times for dogs with oral melanoma can vary, but with surgery alone, survival times are generally reported as:


Stage I: approximately one year

Stage II: approximately 6 months

Stage III: approximately 3 months

Stage IV: approximately 1 month


When the tumor cannot be completely removed and/or it has spread to local lymph nodes of the head and neck (but not beyond), radiation therapy becomes important in the treatment of this disease. Remission rates with radiation therapy alone are up to 70% in some studies. However, recurrence of disease or more distant spread can occur following this type of therapy and survival times are often only in the range of 5-7 months.


For cases of oral melanoma with spread to distant sites like the lungs, historically, veterinary oncologists relied on chemotherapy as a form of treatment. Unfortunately, melanoma seems to be inherently resistant to chemotherapeutic drugs, and response rates and durations are disappointing. Studies do not indicate a survival benefit to adding chemotherapy to aggressive surgery and/or radiation therapy plans.


Recent technological advancements have allowed the development of a DNA-based vaccine as a treatment option for canine oral melanoma. This form of treatment is called immunotherapy and is based upon the concept of using the body’s own immune system to control the growth of, or potentially even eradicate, tumor cells.


The melanoma vaccine works in a similar way to the other vaccinations administered to protect your dog against various infectious diseases. Conventional vaccines typically contain a small amount of a weakened disease-causing organism, modified so that when it is injected into a dog it will not cause disease but will generate an immune response effective in killing the actual active form of the organism, should exposure occur in the future.


The melanoma vaccine contains the human DNA sequence encoding a specific protein only found within melanocytes called tyrosinase. Tyrosinase is an enzyme crucial to the melanocyte’s ability to produce melanin (pigment), and also to the survival of the melanocyte itself. Once injected into the dog, the human DNA segment is processed so the dog’s body actually generates small amounts of the human tyrosinase protein. Just like the weakened disease-causing organism in a conventional vaccination, the human tyrosinase protein is recognized by the dog’s immune system as foreign. Subsequently, the dog’s immune system will generate a response towards the human tyrosinase protein designed to destroy it.


The human tyrosinase protein is similar enough in structure to the dog’s own natural tyrosinase protein, so this very same immune response will be effective in attacking the tyrosinase that is present its own melanoma cells. The end result is destruction of the tyrosinase in the cancerous melanoma cells, and ultimately, the inability of the tumor cells to survive.


The melanoma vaccine is currently only available through veterinary oncology specialists. The vaccine is initially administered every two weeks for a total of four doses; booster vaccinations are administered every six months for the remainder of the dog’s life.


The melanoma vaccine is not a replacement for existing conventional therapies, rather, it is best used in conjunction with other treatment modalities such as surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Side effects are very uncommon. Most importantly, the life expectancy of dogs with oral melanoma that would have typically only survived a few weeks to months has been extended to well over a year or more.


The canine melanoma vaccine represents an exciting new technological advancement within the field of veterinary medicine. Not only can we see benefits for our canine patients, but information from results of studies with dogs treated with this vaccine are being used to help generate new treatments for people with melanoma, reminding us once again of the unyielding power and limitless potential of the human-animal bond.


Dr. Joanne Intile


Image: WilleeCole / via Shutterstock

Comments  9

Leave Comment
  • Cats?
    11/29/2012 01:33am

    Are cats not prone to melanomas or have there been studies using the melanoma vaccine for felines?

  • 11/29/2012 12:27pm


    Oral melanoma is an uncommon tumor in cats. The most common oral tumor in cats is squamous cell carcinoma. This accounts for the majority of oral cancer in felines. Next would be fibrosarcoma. Melanoma is rare. The melanoma vaccine has not been studied in cats as of yet, but we can use it in cats safely, so I would recommend this form of treatment for them as well.


  • Melanoma vaccine
    01/03/2013 06:15pm

    Interesting article. What are your thoughts on the melanoma vaccine used with radiation/chemo when surgery appears to have removed a stage 1 malignant mouth tumour with good margins? Is it the vaccine which has extended dogs' lives, or does it work better in conjunction with the above? Is there any research on survival times using just surgery and the vaccine?

  • Spread to Lungs?
    09/05/2015 09:15pm

    How do you diagnose whether the melanoma has spread to the lungs?

  • 09/07/2015 02:13am

    The diagnosis of metastases (spread to lungs) can be done either via radiographs (x-rays) or CT scan. Radiographs need to be three view (one from left side, one from right side, and one from front to back) and focused on the lungs, to be thorough. CT scans will pick up smaller metastases than radiographs and is my preferred diagnostic test, however if unavailable or owners cannot afford it or the pet is not a good candidate for the sedation / anesthesia required for the scan, radiographs are a good next choice.

  • Blind
    03/25/2016 09:22am

    My dog diagnosed with oral melanoma along lower jaw bone and vet was hopeful she would respond to the medicine better that he gave her for pain and Tumor shrinkage.....it was a large tumor and now starting just our 3rd week of treatment she has suddenly lost her vision it appears.We wanted to give her a chance to fight this without aggressive painful radiation and such.She is 10 yrs and it just didn't make sense to put her through additional suffering so this morning I will release her from her sad condition.Please pray for our family

  • 06/01/2016 03:36pm

    I'm so sorry to read about your precious dog. My Rottweiler was operated on in January for an oral melanoma on his soft palate. The tumour was removed with plenty of margin and the inside of his cheek grafted on the roof of his mouth. He had a four dose course of the vaccine and so far is doing very well 6 months later. It hadn't spread to his lymph nodes but I've been told he would get a year at the most. At the moment he is his old self and he is also 10 years old. Any quality of life he gets at the moment is a bonus and I thank God for every happy day he has ... But dread having to make that awful decision that you had to make

  • 11/06/2016 09:51pm

    Have you considered using Essiac tea? Essiac is a remedy consisting of some very powerful herbs, formulated back may years ago, and has alot of history of effective use behind it. It can be used for people and pets alike for cancer treatment. oftentimes in conjunction with other therapies...

    Using this after surgery /or radiation has dealt with, and reduced the size of the tumor , has often been very effective. There is even a product of Essiac formulated especially with pets in mind... It might be worth checking out!

  • 11/08/2016 02:59pm

    Thanks for the helpful advice. I did read about Essiac Tea but also read it can make things worse before getting better, so was too scared to try it. Unfortunately, we lost our precious Jed on June 22nd , His lungs were almost full of tumours. We don't know how he survived for so long like that, still going for daily walks. But he started falling over and went off his food in the end. So we did the kindest thing by letting him go.

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