Flip the Lip - Why Good Oral Health Care Can Save Your Pet's Life

Do pets ever develop cancer in the mouth? 

Yes!  Dr. Thompson, who does fulltime dental work at AHNA, finds on average two growths a week that have not been noticed by the pet’s family. A pet’s mouth is a common site for growths, both benign and malignant. 

Very few pet family members examine their pet’s mouths. Pet family members often detect bumps in the skin but the mouth is seldom examined. It is important to “flip the lip” of your pet often to check for all oral problems, not just growths.

Veterinarians sometimes refer to an oral evaluation as a “dental.” We now use the term COHAT, which stands for Comprehensive Oral Health Assessment and Treatment, which is done under anesthesia so that all surfaces can be examined and cleaned. The key to fighting oral cancer successfully is early detection and diagnosis. 

Common oral cancers have names like squamous cell carcinoma, malignant melanoma and fibrosarcoma. Treatments range from surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, but the key to successfully fighting all of them is early detection.

What causes oral cancer?

Many cancers occur spontaneously without any identifiable cause. Recent studies show that cats that live with a cigarette smoker have higher levels of asthma, three times higher levels of lymphosarcoma and six times higher levels of oral squamous cell carcinoma. Some cells become cancerous just from exposure to a chronic irritant such as tartar/gingivitis/periodontal disease.

Seamus is 6 years, 9-months-old and about as cute as a dog can be. He weighs 24 lbs and all 24 lbs is personality! Not wild, uncontrolled, exuberant energy; but a wiggle and a crouch and a sideways look that just melts your heart. He is friendly, happy and loving to the point that you can’t resist him. His dad, Bobby is, of course, absolutely in love with Seamus.

Bobby brought Seamus in for a COHAT because he wants to keep Seamus healthy and comfortable, and he knows it is important to prevent dental problems. During the extensive oral examination that is possible while Seamus was under anesthesia for the procedure (see the breathing tube in the picture to the left), Dr. Thompson saw a little “bump” on the gum tissue under the upper lip.  It certainly did not look serious or worrisome. It wasn’t large, or red or inflamed or irregular in shape or ulcerated, in fact it just looked like a little blister or cyst. Dr. Thompson gently tried to remove fluid from it with a small sterile needle, but there was no fluid which means it was not a cyst. Next he took a small biopsy of the tissue to send to a pathologist. At the time, Dr. Thompson wondered if a biopsy was really necessary, but he knew that he could not be sure without it.

After four days, the report returned and Dr. Thompson called Bobby and explained that the report showed the small growth to be a plasmacytoma. He explained that unfortunately this kind of cancer is serious and is potentially life threatening. Because cancer treatments are constantly being updated and anything published is often out-of-date, Dr. Thompson emailed the picture and the biopsy report to three different specialists. After consultation with all three, the decision was to do a deep and wide excision of the original site. Bobby approved the procedure, and the next day Dr. Thompson re-operated to carefully remove all the tissue in the area. He closed the area with a large sliding flap of gum tissue so that the surgery site looked like surgery hadn’t even been performed.  After four days, the pathology report from the removed tissue finally arrived – clean margins – no tumor cells were seen at any of the exterior edges of the tissue removed!

This growth was caught early, thank goodness, and the prognosis is good!

While the tumor that Seamus had was so small that it would really be hard for you to detect, it is a good example of the importance of looking at your pet’s gums frequently. Detecting a growth early may save your pet’s life! Remember that good oral health is so very important and your pet should have a COHAT (which includes a dental cleaning) at least once a year.