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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.

The Dreaded Mast Cell Tumor

Of all the tumors I treat, probably the most unpredictable would be the dreaded canine mast cell tumor. An oncologist I worked with during my internship described his take on this particular form of cancer in dogs by telling owners, “If ever there was going to be a tumor to fool me and do what it wants, it’s a mast cell tumor.”


The more cases I see, the more I find myself repeating those humbling words over and over again when talking about this challenging disease.


Most dogs develop mast cell tumors in their skin or subcutaneous tissue. They may also develop tumors internally, but this is less common. The tricky part comes when the skin tumors spread internally, or an internal tumor spreads to the skin. It can be nearly impossible to determine the “chicken or egg” in those cases.


Some dogs will be diagnosed with a mast cell tumor when a lump that’s been present for many years is finally tested one day. Other dogs will develop a rapidly growing tumor that changes dramatically in a few short days to weeks. Some will have only one tumor over their entire life, while others will have a dozen or more develop in a short period of time.


I’ve also seen dogs that develop a new tumor every year like clockwork. I would also venture to guess it’s probably the most common “second cancer” I diagnose in dogs I’m treating for a completely different tumor type.


Mast cells are immune cells that normally play a role in allergic reactions and inflammatory responses. They reside within many tissues of the body, and dogs have a great deal of these cells located within their skin. Mature mast cells contain granules, which are basically packets of chemicals. When signaled by an allergen or the immune system, mast cells will release the chemicals by a process called degranulation. The chemicals can cause changes locally, right at the area where they are released, and can also travel through the blood stream to affect distant organs and tissues, and even the entire body, in what is known as an anaphylactic reaction.


We don’t really understand completely what causes mast cell tumors to develop, but we do know they are more likely to occur in certain breeds of dogs, including Boxers, Boston Terriers, Beagles, Pugs, Labrador retrievers, and Golden retrievers (to name a few). This suggests a likely genetic component to their origin. Chronic skin inflammation and chronic topical application of irritants may predispose dogs to developing tumors.


We also know that between 20-30% of mast cell tumors will have a mutation in a specific gene called c-kit. This will come up again in a future article discussing treatment options for mast cell tumors, and is the target for a new class of chemotherapy drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors (see article on Palladia).


For cutaneous mast cell tumors, one of the biggest predictors of how “good” or “bad” it will behave is something called the grade of the tumor. The grade can only be determined via biopsy, which means either a small portion of the tumor, or the entire tumor, needs to be removed and evaluated by a pathologist.


The most common grading scheme for mast cell tumors in dogs is something called the Patnaik scale, where tumors will be classified as either a grade 1, grade 2, or grade 3. The vast majority of grade 1 tumors will behave completely benign, and surgical excision is considered curative.


On the other side of the spectrum are the grade 3 tumors. These are invariably malignant, with a high chance of regrowth after surgical removal, and a high propensity to spread to lymph nodes, internal organs, and even the bone marrow.


Perhaps the toughest of all to know how to treat are the grade 2 tumors. Most grade 2 tumors behave very much like grade 1 tumors, but a small subset will act very aggressively, and it’s difficult to predict which ones will do so. Some information can be garnered from the biopsy report itself, but often we are making our best “guesses” as to what to do.


Because of the confusion surrounding the grade 2 tumors, a new grading scheme was proposed about two years designed to place all tumors into one of two categories. Using this new scheme, a mast cell tumor is designated as being high-grade or low-grade. Finally, it seemed the muddy waters would be cleared and tumors could simply be designated as “bad or good.”


As is true for so many things, new isn’t always better to some people, and not every pathologist has readily adopted the two-tier scheme. I do find it actually very helpful for a pathologist to include both designations on a biopsy report, and more and more pathologists are doing so as this newer system seems to be slowly catching on.


Although more than 80% of skin lumps and bumps on dogs are completely benign, and although most canine cutaneous mast cell tumors behave in a non-aggressive fashion, it’s still very important to have any new or old lump or bump evaluated by your veterinarian (see Evaluating Lumps and Bumps).


Never assume a skin tumor is benign, or just a “fatty tumor” by feel. At minimum, a fine needle aspirate should be performed to determine the cause of the lump. Take it from someone who’s been fooled one too many times by this cancer.




Next week I’ll discuss treatment options for mast cell tumors in dogs, including surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.


Dr. Joanne Intile



Image: Thinkstock

Comments  5

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  • Dreaded Mast Cell Tumor
    06/12/2013 02:55pm


    Why is it my perception that this blog/newsletter is so incredibly dog-oriented? The majority of articles seem to address dog issues.

    Cats get mast cell tumors also --- I know --- I've had several cats that have had them. At the very least this article should have made mention of feline mast cell tumors and, if nothing more, stated that they would be the subject of another forthcoming article. Or maybe, "The Dreaded Mast Cell Tumor, Part 1 - Dogs" and "The Dreaded Mast Cell Tumor, Part 2 - Cats".

    How about some information on mast cell tumors in cats?

  • Me, Too!
    06/12/2013 10:10pm

    I echo what nyppsi wrote. I've heard dreadful things about mast cell tumors in kitties and would really like more information regarding diagnosis (pictures of stained slides included with the article would be great!) as well as treatment.

    I wonder, with any cancer cell evaluated by a boarded pathologist, is it completely impossible to tell which will spread and be "bad" as opposed to those that won't go on to ravage the body?

  • My dog had MCC grade 2
    06/14/2013 06:05am

    As a reaction to then yearly (boy do I know better) vaccines, my dog was diagnosed with a mast cell tumor at site of injection. It was removed via laser, biopsied, and then follow up with abdominal ultrasounds every 6 months for 2 years. Her surgical margins were clean and we look back now, having lost her at 15 years to nothing related to MCC, and realize that we did all we could. But MCC is the great imposter. It looked like a wart or pimple. The vet even tried to squeeze it. No no and no.

  • Can MCT change grade?
    02/16/2014 11:17pm

    Great posting with helpful information.

    I had a question regarding the MCT grades: do the tumor grades change, i.e. grade 1 progresses to grade II or grade II progresses to grade 3?

  • My dog's had for 4.5 yrs
    07/28/2015 07:18am

    My dog has had this cancer for 4.5 years. When she first got diagnosed, I thought I would lose here. She had surgery where they removed about 7 of the tumors. It was terrible. At that time she was 9 years old. I couldn't put her through that again, esp. since the doctor said it would not cure her and that they would keep coming back. I also don't have much money, so chemo and treatments were not an option. So, I opted to love the heck out of her, feed her well, and hope for the best. I did, however, say to myself that if any of the 'scary looking' tumors came back, we would definitely have it removed. That was what took us to the vet. A large (nickel-sized) tumor that was purple, and it was on her side, in the soft skin. Anyway, here we are. She's 13.5. Frisky and feisty as ever (she's a pit bull, by the way, and they are prone to getting this cancer, esp. if they are white, evidently). She has more energy now than when she was young. She still yanks me down the street on our walks. Still plays wildly. Still curious. Never lazy. Even during naps, and sound or smell, and she leaps up to investigate. This was not a death sentence for us. I am so glad I didn't get the tumors removed every year. That anesthesia is TERRIBLE! The surgery is really hard on them. And she is happy, healthy, and we are living a long, loving, wonderful life together. I know we can't predict things, but I know in my gut that she's going to be in my life for at least another year and a half or two years. I attribute her health to my absolute love for her, and the whole grain sourdough bread that I have been baking for her all her life which she gets a slice over every night in her kong with some peanut butter ;)

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