Stephen J. Birchard DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVS

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Complete Surgical Excision of Mast Cell Tumor in Dogs and Cats

A wide variety of skin tumors occur in dogs and cats, both benign and malignant.  An important principle of surgical management of these tumors is to establish a diagnosis before the operation.  Fine needle aspiration (FNA) is a practical and reasonably accurate method to biopsy skin masses, and the results allow clinicians to plan appropriate treatments.  For example, benign skin tumors such as epidermal inclusion cysts require only a marginal excision and routine skin closure.  Malignant skin tumors, such as mast cell tumor (MCT), require extensive tissue resection (e.g. removal of 2-3 cm of normal tissue with the mass) followed by more complicated reconstruction in some cases.  An adequate deep margin of normal tissue should be removed with the tumor as well as medial and lateral margins. Excise a section of the tissue layer below the tumor to achieve a complete resection. If the tumor is located in the subcutaneous space remove the muscle or deep fascia below the tumor.

Preoperative Considerations
As is true for any animal with neoplasia, tumor staging is done prior to surgery to establish the extent of disease. Appropriate imaging, such as thoracic radiographs and abdominal ultrasound, is used to examine for metastasis or other unrelated problems. Also carefully examine regional lymph nodes and if enlarged perform FNA. With MCT, administer preoperative antihistamines such as diphenhdyramine to reduce the inflammation associated with histamine release by the tumor. The drug can be given either orally for 1 or more days preoperatively, or parenterally just before surgery. Avoid excessive manipulation of the tumor before surgery to prevent degranulation of mast cells and release of histamine.

Be sure to warn owners about potential complications of surgical removal of MCT. Even with antihistamine pre-treatment wound complications such as excessive inflammation, seroma, and dehiscence are possible.

Surgical Technique
After placing the dog or cat under general anesthesia, perform a wide aseptic preparation of the surgical site. (Fig 1) 
Fig. 1: Cutaneous mast cell tumor (circle) over the dorsal thoracic area in a spaniel.
(note Figs 3-7 are the same dog as in this picture)
Use a sterile ruler and marking pen to delineate the mass (Fig 2), then draw a circle around the tumor that is 2-3 cm from the edge of the mass.(Fig 3)
Fig. 2: Sterile surgical marking pen and ruler to map surgical margins around skin tumors.
Fig. 3: MCT (inner circle and X) delineated by an outer circle of 2cm margins of normal skin
Draw lines that taper the incision on each end to make the incision an ellipse and thus avoid having “dog ears” of skin on the ends.(Fig. 3) Be sure that the long axis of the resultant incision is parallel to the tension lines in that area of the body.

Make the incisions on the proposed lines and continue the dissection into the deep tissues. Avoid dissecting toward the tumor; as you proceed deeper in the tissues continue to honor the 2 or 3 cm margin originally mapped on the skin. Once the desired layer of deep margin has been reached, incise the fascia or muscle, lift the tumor and associated tissue (en bloc), and dissect the block of tissue completely free.(Fig. 4)
Fig. 4: Intraoperative picture with skin mass and underlying tissue
being removed from right to left. Note underlying muscle being removed with the mass.
Wide excision of skin or subcutaneous masses frequently leaves large skin defects that can be difficult to close. When primary closure cannot be obtained due to excessive skin tension, consider either immediate or staged flap or graft reconstruction. (see blogs from 3/20/14 on punch skin grafts and 4/1/14 on axial pattern skin flaps) If local tissues are adequate for closure, use the “Rule of Halves” technique (see blog from 11/3/14 on closure of elliptical skin incisions). A towel clamp can be used to initially bring the skin together at the middle of the incision to make suture placement easier.(Fig. 5) 
Fig. 5: A towel clamp is used to temporarily relieve tension and allow
suture closure the incision.
Close deep tissues at the middle of the incision first, then continue to place sutures in the rule of halves manner to achieve complete closure.(Fig. 6, 7)  
Fig. 6: Deep sutures have been placed in the middle of the incision; the next 2 deep sutures
will be placed at the arrows in the "Rule of Halves" manner.

Fig. 7: Final appearance of closed incision
Place a closed suction drain if excessive dead space exists in the deep tissue layers that cannot be closed (see blog from 3/15/14 on Jackson Pratt drains)

After removal of the mass, ink the tissue specimen with appropriate dye such as India ink to allow the pathologist to identify the margins of the excision. Also, place a suture on either the cranial or caudal aspect of the specimen to further orient the pathologist in case one of the margins shows incomplete excision of the tumor.

Postoperative Care
Routine supportive care is administered after removal of mast cell tumors. Avoid NSAIDS administration on MCT dogs to prevent compounding the gastric irritation from the histamine. Tramadol is a good alternative postoperative analgesic. Monitor the surgical incision for swelling or bleeding, and instruct owners to limit exercise and monitor the surgical site carefully at home. Although most dogs and cats recover without major systemic complications after removal of MCT, systemic vascular collapse is possible from massive histamine release in rare cases. Fluid resuscitation and corticosteroid administration may be necessary to support and stabilize the patient if this occurs.

Long-term outcome is dependent upon the histopathologic classification of the MCT. There are 2 major classification schemes now used by pathologists, i.e., Grade 1, 2 and 3 (1 is low grade, 3 is high grade and 2 is intermediate grade) or a simpler 2 tier system of low-grade vs. high grade.(1) Regardless of the system used, the higher the grade of MCT the poorer the prognosis.(1,2) Information on adjunctive therapy such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy is readily available and may be useful in animals with incompletely excised or metastatic tumors.(3)


1. Sabattini S, Scarpa F, Berlato D, Bettini G. Histologic grading of canine mast cell tumor: is 2 better than 3? Vet Pathol. 2015 Jan;52(1):70-3.
2. Donnelly L, Mullin C, Balko J, Evaluation of histological grade and histologically tumour-free margins as predictors of local recurrence in completely excised canine mast cell tumours.Vet Comp Oncol. 2015 Mar;13(1):70-6.
3. London CA, Thamm DH. Mast cell tumor. In: Small Animal Clinical Oncology, eds: Withrow S, MacEwen G, Elsevier, 2013, pg. 335.