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Published: Dec 27, 2011

Animals can succumb to a number of illnesses ranging from arthritis to diabetes and even cancer. VCA Animal Hospitals reports one such cancer is called oral melanoma and is the most common malignant oral tumor in dogs.

Oral melanoma is a tumor of the melanin pigment-producing cells (called melanocytes) in the mouth. These tumors tend to grow rapidly and are difficult to remove completely—even with surgery. Many times small amounts of the tumor will remain, leaving a chance for the cancer to grow again, sometimes spreading to other regions in a dog's body.

Although it is the most common form of mouth cancer in dogs, the cause of oral melanoma is not straightforward. In people, melanoma tends to stem from exposure to ultraviolet irradiation from the sun, however it is not certain whether pets get the skin cancer in the same way.

VCA reports that cancer tends to occur in older animals and the average age for a dog to develop oral melanoma is 11 years old. Clinical signs of oral melanoma include swelling of the gums, bleeding or the development of a secondary infection, which may cause bad breath. An owner should bring a dog with any of these signs to a veterinarian clinic for examination. If a vet is concerned about oral melanoma or another form of cancer, bloodwork and x-rays will likely be performed to screen a dog’s organ health prior to surgery. The most common form of treatment for oral melanoma is surgical removal, though other treatments will likely be recommended due to the malignant nature of this tumor.