Mast cell tumors of the skin – holistic approaches for prevention and small tumors

Usually I tell folks I can tell if a skin tumor is benign by how it feels. Most benign tumors are easy to roll around, in other words not attached to any deep tissue. They tend to grow slowly and if they are under the skin they are fairly smooth. You can get some really ugly bumpy benign tumors on the skin surface. The exception to these rules is the mast cell tumors, which tend to feel like benign tumors but are really cancerous.

Mast cell tumors contain histamine and it is common to see a large amount of swelling if they get hit or injured. Often times this is when they are diagnosed. In large tumors this release can be dangerous and can cause anaphylaxis. Usually with small tumors this is not an issue.

This article is about small grade 1 and 2 mast cell tumors of the skin. For internal mast cell cancer and grade 3 tumors see Mast Cell tumors grade 3 and internal mast cell cancer

There are certain breeds of dogs who are very prone to these tumors, the number one breed being Boxers.

If you can remove a mast cell tumor of the skin usually you are in good shape if it is a grade 1 or 2. These tumors are slow to spread to other areas of the body. The grade 3 ones can be more problematic as they are faster to spread. Your veterinarian may use an antihistamine during surgery to avoid any chance of anaphylaxis, especially if the tumor is larger.

Mast cell tumors that grow in the skin are usually related to issues with blood flow. If there is not proper blood flow to the skin the immune system is not getting there and there is not enough vigilance against these tumors forming. These animals often will also have other issues with dry skin, skin inflammation or itchiness but not always.

Most dogs that have mast cell tumors in the skin will go on to form more with time. With enough of these growths the chances of getting a grade 3 seem to increase so it is best to try to treat the underlying blood flow issues early.

While I always used to recommend removal of these tumors, I have now seen more and more that I have been able to get rid of through herbal treatments, especially with combined topically and internal application. These days I often try an herbal approach first. That being said, I still feel like quick removal of these tumors and initiating steps for prevention of more is a good option.

The two most important tools I use for treating mast cell skin tumors are

  1. Up the meat in your dog’s diet and make sure it is good quality protein. If possible consider a high protein raw food. This helps reduce inflammation in the skin and improve blood flow. See Diets for cancer.
  2. Xue Fu Zhu Yu Tang – this formula helps to move blood out to the skin and enhance the immune system’s response to cancer. Constant vigilance! More and more I feel like small tumors can be treated with this formula both used externally and internally. While I used to always recommend surgery, now I like to see if I can get rid of them with this herbal first. Please click on the formula name above to learn more. Also when treating any tumors topically check in with your vet first as mast cell tumors can cause a sudden release of histamine. I have never had a histamine issue with using it topically in one of my patients but the potential is there.

In addition I will sometimes use the following

  • Acupuncture – can help to move blood to the skin and boost the immune system
  • Mushrooms – Chinese mushrooms such as shiitake, maitake, cordyceps, and reishi can help stimulate the immune system and have a strong anti-cancer effect. I prefer the My Community Host Defense Mushroom Blend from the high quality company Fungi Perfecti.
  • Artemisinin – can help to kill off cancer cells when they form
  • Cod liver oil – the omega fatty acids in fish oils help to stimulate the immune system, work as anti-oxidants and reduce inflammation.

Georgia’s Legacy just put up a great article on Mast Cell Tumors that talks quite a bit about the grading. Please read Mast Cell Tumors in Dogs.

Also see for the story of one of the dogs I worked with.

As with all articles on this site please check with your animal’s primary veterinarian before starting any supplements or herbs.

Back to Holistic and Integrative Approaches to Cancer

7 Responses to “Mast cell tumors of the skin – holistic approaches for prevention and small tumors”

  1. Susan Says:

    Hi Lena, thanks for the great post! Your site has been such a resource for us. I have been wondering if there is any support for massage or any topical massage remedies used with tumors? Oscar has a pesky area, and we have done two surgeries (the first was a low grade 2 followed by a lymph node). We are trying to manage it medicinally and holistically, since surgery doesn’t seem to help, but the external skin is one area we don’t treat. We use Xue Fu but at a lower dose than you recommend in your other post; I may increase it. We also do Tong Ren (like acupuncture without the needles), mushrooms, high-quality EFA…the list is long but I’m always wondering if (or hoping) I’m missing something. Many thanks, Susan and Oscar

  2. Lena Says:

    I haven’t worked with massage with the mast cell before but it seems it would be a great preventative since it helps with blood flow to the skin. If there are active mast cell tumors you need to be
    careful because if they are manipulated you can get histamine release that can be dangerous, especially from the large tumors. Anything that helps with blood flow and drainage should help. Mast cells are usually considered blood stagnation in Chinese medicine so the Tong Ren should also help with that for moving blood – I usually work with liver points.

  3. Susan Says:

    Thanks for the idea about the liver points! I actually don’t work those as much as immune, oxygen, etc.

  4. Lorri Ireton Says:

    Hi Lene,
    I have just found your wonderful web site. Thank you for all you information. My dog, Bailey, who is a lab/chow rescue is 10 years old. Over the past 2 years she has had mcts removed. She was clean for a year and now they are returning. She has six small lumps on her rear leg, shoulder and tummy. The vet says she is systemic and removing them is no longer an option as they will continue to reappear. They are only on the skin. Her spleen,liver etc are clean. She is taking a break before we decide out next option. I would like to try Xue Fu Zhu Tang to increase blood flow. She also has arthritisin her hind legs, so I am wondering if Artemisinin would be a good idea. Could you please let me know about amounts to be given and how often. She is 58-60lbs.
    Thank you so much.
    I await your reply.

  5. Lena Says:

    Hi Lorri,
    I have seen a number of dogs who grow mast cell tumors all over their skin who never get or have systemic mast cell cancer so hopefully that is the case for her. I have also had a number of dogs where once we started Xue Fu Zhu Yu Tang with the added San Leng and E Zhu, did some acupuncture and put them on a high protein diet they stopped forming MCTs and if we didn’t remove the MCTs they had they either stayed stable, got smaller or in a couple cases went away. I do however usually recommend removal. I haven’t found that artemisinin has any ill effects for dogs that have arthritis. If you click on the links to XFZYT and artemisinin you will find more info on how I use them and what dosages I usually recommend however you should check with Bailey’s vet.
    best wishes,

  6. sharon Says:

    Hi Lena,

    I just read that you may have finished your article on grade 3 mast cell tumors? Is it up on your site anywhere. Is grade 3 mast cell tumor the same as grade 3 soft tissue sarcoma? I am a little unclear if artemisinin is highly effective with soft tissue sarcoma? Also, should we add something else to the artemisinin? Thank you!


  7. Lena Says:

    Hi Sharon,
    I don’t have an article up and may have a hard time giving good advise in it because the grade 3 MCT can be treated very differently dog to dog. They are a tumor I highly recommend finding a holistic vet to work with. From advise I passed on to someone else – Most mast cell tumors in the skin are lower grade (1 or 2), however occasionally you get ones that are highly aggressive (grade 3). Usually if mast cells are in the front of the body they are low grade and in Chinese medicine blood stasis and respond well to blood stasis formulas like this one. It is more common to have more aggressive grade 3 in the back half of the body although 1 and 2 are still more common than the grade 3. Most grade 3 are larger and fall into the damp heat catagory according to Chinese medicine and are treated with a whole different protocol and different herbs and XFZYT doesn’t work well for them. A chinese herbal vet would be able to tell the difference from seeing your dog. It would be worth finding someone in your area who can help if there is a chance it is more aggressive . I do still use artemisinin with the grade 3s but sometimes will use Xue Fu Zhu Yu Tang (blood mover) but often go in the direction of Si Miao San or Hoxsey like formula (damp heat formulas) and sometimes for mixed tumors combine blood movers and damp heat herbs.
    best wishes,