If ever there was a tumor that would fool me, it would be a mast cell tumor on a dog…

Mast cell tumors are the most common cancerous skin tumor seen in dogs. Mast cell tumors are tumors of mast cells, which are immune cells normally functioning in allergic reactions. Mast cells contain various chemical mediators that are released upon some sort of external stimulation. I typically use the example of a mosquito bite on your skin: Mast cells release chemicals in response to the substance injected by the mosquito, and this causes the development of a pesky, itchy red bump. Mast cells are also involved in anaphylactic reactions to things like peanuts or shellfish. In these instances, mast cells are releasing their chemicals on a more “global” scale in the body, causing swelling of airways and lowering blood pressure, which can even lead to death.


Cutaneous mast cell tumors in dogs can be extremely challenging as it seems no two tumors behave alike, even in the same dog. Some dogs develop a single tumor during their lifetime, which is surgically removed, and never have any evidence of recurrence or spread. Other dogs develop multiple tumors in their skin at the same time, or develop one tumor every year like clockwork, while some others may experience regrowth of a tumor soon after surgery, and spread of the cancer through their body at a rapid rate.


Among many variables, the biggest predictor of the behavior of a cutaneous mast cell tumor in a dog is something called the histological grade. The grade of a cutaneous mast cell tumor can ONLY be determined through a biopsy. There are currently several grading schemes for mast cell tumors; the most commonly used is the Patnaik scale, which designates tumors as grade 1, grade 2, or grade 3. Grade 1 tumors are invariably benign in their behavior, and are generally considered cured with surgery. On the other end of the spectrum are grade 3 tumors, which are considered invariably malignant, tending to recur following surgery and spread to regional lymph nodes and internal organs with a high frequency and can be rapidly fatal. In the middle fall grade 2 tumors, which can be a diagnostic and therapeutic challenge for oncologists. Most grade 2 tumors behave like grade 1 tumors, however some grade 2 tumors behave in a very aggressive fashion. As a veterinary oncologist, these are my most difficult cases as it can be very hard to predict which grade 2 tumors will “behave badly”.  A newer scale, which classifies mast cell tumors as being either “High grade” or “Low grade” was recently developed. This grading system can better predict outcome for dogs.  I personally like it when a biopsy report grades the tumors on both the Patnaik and the “High/Low” scale in order to give me the most information possible.


Mast cell tumors are treated in many different ways and when I meet with an owner, I spend a great deal of time talking with them and developing the best plan of action for their pet.  In my experience, there’s usually a lot of different ways we can approach a pet’s treatment, so it’s important to make sure owners understand all their options and that we are all on the same page.


I’m often asked by owners and their veterinarians about the oral chemotherapy drug available for treating mast cell tumors in dogs.  There are two drugs that fit this description, and both are in the family of receptor tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKI’s) are currently licensed for use in dogs: Palladia ® (toceranib phosphate) was the first drug to be approved by the FDA for treating cancer in animals, and approval of Kinavet ® (masitinib) soon followed.


Receptor tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKI’s) are targeted anti-cancer therapies. This class of drugs has caused significant excitement in the human cancer field. The most widely known receptor TKI for people is Gleevec ® (imatinib mesylate), a drug that has revolutionized the successful treatment of human gastrointestinal stromal tumors and chronic myelogenous leukemia.   Both Palladia ® and Kinavet ® are multi-receptor TKI’s similar to Gleevec ® that target mutated receptors involved in both cellular proliferation and tumor angiogenesis (blood vessel growth) pathways.


Specifically, mutations in the receptor tyrosine kinase known as KIT occur in 20-30% of grade 2 and 3 canine mast cell tumors. Palladia ® and Kinavet ® successfully target mutated KIT receptors in mast cell tumors. Palladia ® is indicated for the treatment of grade 2 and 3 recurrent mast cell tumors, with or without lymph node metastasis. Kinavet is licensed for the treatment of recurrent (post-surgery) or nonresectable Grade II or III cutaneous mast cell tumors in dogs with no previous treatment with radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy except corticosteroids.


Exciting information from preliminary clinical trials indicate both drugs may also have activity against cancers other than mast cell tumors, making them attractive options for patients who previously may have had little or no opportunity for treatment. Published information is not currently available about the use of Palladia ® in cats, however preliminary studies indicate this drug is safe to administer to cats, and we have personally successfully used Palladia to control a variety of cancers in our feline patients as well.  I receive a lot of calls about using these drugs “off label” and I will warn owners and their vets that just because they are oral medications and they can be given at home, they are not necessarily less toxic or less likely to cause your pet any side effects as the drugs we administer in hospital.  I do worry that because of their ease of administration, there’s a lot of misuse of these drugs going on.


TKI’s are a unique form of anti-cancer therapy for animals. They are available as oral tablets designed to be administered either daily or every other day at home by the owners, rather than being given intravenously at the veterinarian’s office as we do for most other chemotherapy drugs. Initially (and this will vary from doctor to doctor) I recommend patients receiving these drugs are scheduled for monthly rechecks with comprehensive physical exams and labwork for the first 6 months of therapy. Rechecks are sometimes reduced to an every other month basis, depending on the patient’s status. Treatment is continued for 12 months or longer, depending on tumor control. Again, it’s important to keep in mind that the major toxicities seen with TKI’s are adverse gastrointestinal signs rather than hematological toxicity as seen with other traditional chemotherapy agents.  Therefore once again, ease of administration should not preclude sound medical reasoning for their use.


If you or your veterinarian feels your dog could benefit from treatment with a TKI, please consider referral to a veterinary oncologist to discuss the pros and cons to treatment with this family of drugs so further diagnostic and therapeutic options can be discussed.
If you liked this article, you may also be interested in reading: Could Cat Feces Help Cure Cancer?

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