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Regular Dental Examinations Provide Early Detection of Oral Tumors in Pets

Pet Column for the week of February 13, 2006

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Services - Dentistry

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Kim Marie Labak
Information Specialist

February is pet dental health month, and part of maintaining oral health is monitoring our pet's mouth for abnormal growth and tumors. Oral tumors are not easily detected by pet owners since they are inside the mouth and since pets can't tell you when they have discomfort in their mouth.

During a pet's annual health wellness examination, a veterinarian performs an oral and dental examination, but in the time between visits, regular home dental care can help an owner identify oral and dental diseases, including oral tumors.

According to Dr. Bill Krug, veterinary dental and oral surgery resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, oral tumors can range from benign overgrowth of gum tissue to rapidly growing, malignant forms of cancer.

In a condition called gingival hyperplasia in dogs, the gums overgrow around the teeth. This can interfere with chewing and eating, and can predispose the teeth to infection. Dogs can also get benign tumors of the periodontal ligament which holds a tooth place. These tumors usually appear as a lump around a tooth, at the gumline.

Other tumors of the periodontal ligament are technically benign in that they don't metastasize, or spread to other parts of the body, "but these can be locally invasive if left untreated," explains Krug. "They can invade soft tissue and bone, push teeth out of place and lead to serious complications, such as the loss of the jaw bone, jaw fractures, and an inability to eat."

"Even though benign oral tumors can't spread to other parts of body like malignant tumors, they can impinge on quality of life by interfering with eating and other normal oral activities, such as chewing and playing."

For these benign conditions, surgical removal of the abnormal tissue can prevent serious complications.

Three types of malignant tumors are most commonly seen in dogs. Squamous cell carcinomas and fibrosarcomas are relatively slow to grow and spread, so early detection and surgical removal can potentially eliminate the risk of metastasis.

Melanomas, although benign when on external, haired skin of dogs, are malignant when in the mouth. Malignant melanomas grow quickly and can spread rapidly to the lungs and lymph nodes. They also can be surgically removed, and chemotherapy or radiation therapy can be used to slow the development of this cancer in other parts of the body.

In cats, the most common oral tumor is the squamous cell carcinoma. To be controlled, these tumors have to be caught very early since cats' mouth and jaws are so small that surgical resection can quickly become unfeasable.

Dr. Krug points out that surgical removal of tumors does not affect pets as drastically as humans. "Animals are not concerned about impairing their speech or facial appearance, so loss of some teeth or even part of the jaw may not be a big ordeal for a pet. In fact, after these surgeries, most owners are usually happy about their pet's appearance once the hair regrows."

Animals may take time to adjust to eating after surgery, but often do well if much of their discomfort is relieved.

Krug also points out that chemotherapy and radiation therapy for malignant tumors is used less aggressively in animals than in humans. "Our goal with these therapies is different than in human medicine; we are not aiming to completely cure the cancer, but to improve the quality of the animal's life."

"Early detection is key," says Krug, and oral tumors are just one more reason to start a home dental care regiment for your pet that includes examination of the mouth. "Even if you can't brush the teeth," says Krug, "just looking inside the mouth regularly can help detect oral tumors."

If your pet won't let you brush its teeth, you can still sneak a peek inside its mouth while petting or playing; a pet may open its mouth when you pet its face or dangle a toy. Getting familiar with the normal appearance of the gums and skin in the mouth will help you identify abnormalities along the gumline, under the tongue, on the roof of the mouth, and back toward the throat and tonsils.

Other signs that an animal may have an abnormal growth in the mouth include a foul odor from the mouth, trouble chewing, excessive salivation, coughing, and vomiting, but examining the mouth regularly can usually catch a tumor before these signs appear.

For more information on oral tumors and home dental care for your pet, consult your veterinarian.