Lumps On Dogs: When To Get Them Checked By A Vet

Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Susan Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide.

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Lumps On Dogs: When To Get Them Checked By A Veterinarian

lumps on dogsWhen people find lumps on dogs, they often panic. It’s easy to assume the worst. And then we often avoid finding out more. But really: what should you do?

Get lumps on dogs checked by a veterinarian. ASAP. Most of the time the lumps are benign … but when they’re not, the longer you wait to get them checked out, the worse the situation becomes.

Watch and Wait Approach?

But what should you do when your veterinarian wants to “watch and wait” or flat out refuses to test those lumps for cancer?

Best case scenario: the lumps really are “nothing to worry about” and your dog is fine, just a little lumpy.

Worst case scenario: your dog has cancer, and misses a window of opportunity to get early surgery. Early surgeries are smaller (so less expensive) and, depending upon the location and cancer type, can often cure cancer.

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This “watch and wait” attitude is something we’re hoping to turn around, because it’s not good for dogs, and it’s not good for dog lovers. For example, here’s a message our Dog Cancer Vet Customer Support team recently received:

I have an otherwise healthy labrador of 14 1/2 who has several lumps that her regular vet is unwilling to aspirate and against treating dogs for cancer entirely!  I hope that they are fatty lumps as suggested but my dog keeps drawing my attention to the largest lump and has been known to indicate breast cancer in at least one human.

Well this just makes my blood boil! A vet won’t aspirate?! How can this be when early detection saves lives! Why would a veterinarian choose to not check a skin mass? Especially when the dog’s guardian believes it’s necessary?

Not even the most experienced veterinarian can look at or feel a mass and know if it is cancer or not.

We must sample lumps, and evaluate the cells under a microscope to determine what they are. There is no other way to know whether a lump is benign or malignant.

Your veterinarian must perform a fine needle aspirate and/or a biopsy to make an accurate diagnosis. If your vet won’t do it, then find a vet who will.

lumps on dog : is it cancerThere are so many things we can do for cancer these days, which is good, because cancer is now the #1 killer of dogs. That’s why Dr. Dressler and I wrote The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, which is full of practical advice from all over the spectrum. Not only my specialty, chemotherapy — but also surgery, radiation, diet, supplements, and even mind-body strategies. Dogs are living well and long because there are so many things we can do.

Fine Needle Aspirates for Lumps on Dogs

Aspirates are important and can help identify many types of tumors. They’re also quick, just a tiny needle inserted in the lump, and they aren’t expensive and don’t require anesthesia.

I know, it’s scary to think that the lump can be cancer.

But the sooner we determine whether a mass is cancerous and should be removed, the better for your pet. Most skin and subcutaneous (just under the skin) tumors can be cured when diagnosed early, when masses are small.

But do you really not want to know? Many dogs and cats have lumps and bumps, and not all of these masses are malignant (cancerous) tumors.

In fact, most tumors are benign (not cancer).

So if you find a lump while petting your dog, or your vet finds one during a physical exam, don’t just monitor it. If you See Something, Do Something.

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See Something, Do Something

“See Something Do Something” is a set of guidelines I am developing with my colleagues at VCA Hospitals to help guardians and veterinarians figure out what to do when they find lumps on dogs skin, or just under the skin.

See Something: When a skin lump is the size of pea or larger or has been present for one month,

Do Something: Aspirate or biopsy, and treat appropriately.

A pea is about one centimeter, or about half the diameter of a penny. Why so small? When masses are removed early, the prognosis can be excellent, with no additional treatment needed after surgery.

But to limit the number or surgeries, we must get a diagnosis with cytology or biopsy early and before removing a tumor. This will lead to an improved outcome for your pet. A single surgical procedure can cure your pet for the majority of tumors. This is especially true for benign tumors, and some cancers that are only locally invasive (those that don’t spread or metastasize to other parts of the body).

Benign Tumors

Benign tumors may not need to be removed immediately. The location of the mass on your pet’s body should be considered. Will an increase in growth in this location prevent successful surgery? Is the mass causing pain, irritation, secondary bleeding or infection? Unless the answers to these questions are yes, you may not need to do surgery at all. Your veterinarian will be able to help you figure this out for each benign tumor.

Malignant Tumors

But if the mass is malignant, the first surgery is your pet’s best chance for a cure. Therefore your veterinarian needs to know what the tumor is before it is removed.

What is the danger of waiting too long?

Larger masses are more difficult to remove!

This is especially true for masses on the legs, head and neck area, and for smaller pets.

Over time tumors are likely to increase in size making them more difficult to remove and/or they may metastasize (spread) to internal organs. A larger mass is also more likely to need additional therapy after surgery, such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy, to prevent recurrence.

dog-cancer-blog-working-with-vets

Smokey’s story

I wrote a blog about my nurse’s dog, Smokey that you should read. Smokey was an amazing white Pitty (aka Pit Bull), and I adored him. (Smokey is no longer with us, but did not die of his cancer but other medical issues later on.)

I had aspirated MANY skin masses on Smokey over the years. And the masses had always been benign fatty deposits, lipomas.

But then one day when Smokey came in for his routine lipoma check, it wasn’t a benign lipoma. This one was a malignant cancer. And the now five centimeter connective tissue cancer required a very large and complicated surgery to get the important wide and clean margins.

(The tumor was a soft tissue sarcomas. These have tentacle-like projections, so these tumors require three centimeter, more than an inch, margins around the tumor, and a tissue layer below. That is a really big surgery: for a five centimeter tumor, the resulting scar should be at least eleven cm, or about 4.5 inches.)

In hindsight, if we had aspirated this earlier when the mass was one centimeter, Smokey’s surgery would have been much smaller.

Stay Vigilant About Lumps on Dogs

So just because your dog has had multiple lipomas or other benign masses in the past, don’t get too relaxed. Stay vigilant and have those lumps and bumps aspirated. It’s not a big deal for the dog, and it is worth knowing what you’re facing.

Remember, no one — not a vet, not an oncologist, and not you — can tell what a lump is just by feeling. And “watching and waiting” is not a good idea. Get the masses aspirated. Don’t assume it’s just another lipoma. The earlier we find tumors, the better.

With early diagnosis, less treatment will likely be required, and a smaller surgery may be curative. This means cost, a better prognosis, happier pets, and guardians too!

See Something, Do Something!

Live longer, live well,

Dr Sue

PS: Dr. Dressler wrote about this years ago and his post is useful. I Found a Lump on My Dog

About the Author: Susan Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology)


Susan Ettinger, DVM. Dip. ACVIM (Oncology) is a veterinarian oncologist at VCA Animal Specialty & Emergency Center in New York, and the co-author of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide: Full Spectrum Treatments to Optimize Your Dog's Life Quality and Longevity.

  • Steph L

    I agree with Dr Ettinger: If your vet won’t do it, then find a vet who will.
    and that’s exactly what I would have done but the dog is 14 1/2 years old. Could age be a factor in the doctor’s decision? Did the owner ask her Vet WHY he/she would not do it?

  • raavenswing

    Excellent article Dr. Ettinger, when my dog’s vet would not aspirate
    some lumps on my older dog and kept pushing me to vaccinate although he
    had hypothyroidism, I changed vets.
    I would also lik to know your
    opinion on Zeuterin and cancer. I just can’t understand how people think
    this is in anyway humane and won’t cause side effects.
    thank you

  • Sam2001

    Ours does check, and rechecks if there is growth. They are measured and her body chart is updated. Thus far… our 12 year old Lab-Pointer mix is “lumpy” but benign.

    She has had some removed, but the last surgery took too much out of her. She went from spry active senior, to easily tired senior quickly. Unless it is a necessity, we are no longer going to do removals.

    • Susan Kazara Harper

      Hi Sam, Thanks for your voice of experience. All of this helps. And well done for keeping track of the various lumps and bumps. Have you taken a look at EverPup? Your 12 year old would love it. EverPup is the ultimate daily nutraceutical Dr. Dressler designed to ‘keep healthy dogs healthy’. It also contains lower doses of the dietary apoptogens which are in Apocaps. This helps the natural process of apoptosis, natural cell death, which we want for ourselves and our dogs. You can find out more at http://www.everpup.com, and the EverPup Club is a great way to ensure you don’t run out. Give that lovely senior a hug from all of us.

  • Susan Kazara Harper

    Hi there, Yes, fine needle aspirate are not very conclusive so it’s very difficult to get a full diagnosis. The best course of action is a biopsy, where part or all of the lump is taken out, and the tissue sent to the lab. This has multiple advantages. 1) Best chance for a diagnosis, 2) In the best case scenario the entire lump can be removed with clean margins, 3) An aspiration still involves sedation and surgery, and this may lead to a second surgery to get more, or get it all. This doubles expense for you and stress to your dog. Whenever possible, biopsy is best. I hope this helps.

  • Diane Elizabeth Cooper Satt

    my vet is removing the lump and sending it to the lab does this mean cancer

    • Susan Kazara Harper

      Hi Diane,
      This means your vet is doing a great job for you by wanting to know what you’re dealing with. Too many people and vets still work on the old advice of ‘wait and see’. Wait and see what? No, get it checked out now. It could come back benign, and you’ll breathe a sigh of relief. If it comes back positive for cancer however, take a deep breath and don’t panic. Find out what it is, and the stage, which helps indicate how far it may have spread. If you search ‘biopsy’ in this blog, you’ll find some good posts to help you get an understanding of the language and procedures used. Please don’t waste your time worrying; that’s a prayer for what you don’t want. Get the results and move forward. Any lump is scary, and maybe it’s just a wake-up call to really look at nutrition and other support. Good luck!

  • Susan Kazara Harper

    Hi Donna, Well that sounds like a very good result. The wide margins and follow-up testing is very promising. That said, I hate to get comfortable with the idea of cancer being cured. I’ve had two dogs with cancer. Thankfully we exceeded both prognosis, and my second boy was over 4 years cancer free when he passed at the age of 16. However, we remained vigilant throughout. I don’t mean that we remained in fear of the cancer returning, but in my mind, all it takes is a couple of cells, and it would be silly to get comfortable and think we were in the clear. Staying vigilant includes regular checked, the best possible cancer diet nutirition and possibly great nutraceutical support with apoptogens. Apocaps could be well worth considering … the recommendation is when we get a year “cancer free”, meaning no symptoms, the dosage can be reduced to about half. But the apoptogens can help the body push back any cancer cells that may try to take hold. You don’t say your dog’s age, but just like people, animals become less able to fight off dis-ease as they get older. I believe they need all the help our love can give them. Good luck. I truly hope you have seen the last of the mast cell. Give your boy a cuddle from all of us.

    • Thank you Susan. My question is still, is it possible for a high grade (3) tumor to be removed and it to be curable of mast cell cancer? He started itching one year prior. How long does a mast cell cancer need to be there to be deemed a high grade (3)? Our oncologist at the University of Penn do not support supplements or a particular diet.

      • Susan Kazara Harper

        Hi Donna, I’m sorry if I didn’t address your questions fully. Is it possible? Yes. If there is no metastasis and all the cancer has been surgically removed, and the dog is vibrant to rebound from the surgery and treatment, and is supported with ideal nutrition etc. needed to remain robust, yes, it’s possible. Vets generally do not consider cancer curable so I can’t give you any data. I also do not have stats on how long it takes a cancer to reach stage 3. I’m not aware that anyone could track that, as each case, each dog is invidual and cancer cells are erratic. Not every oncologist will follow the same protocol or have the same experience or beliefs either. It’s not black and white, although it would be nicer for us if it were. Just remember, you know your dog better than anyone, and that includes those who are expert in the disease. The decisions are all, ultimately, yours. And your dog wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • Jules

    My 12 year old large gun dog has had many fatty looking and small hard looking lumps for a few years, ie around 20, he has no health problems, do I get every one of them checked out? He is petrified of the vet.

    • Susan Kazara Harper

      Hi Jules,
      I went through the same thing with my Weimaraner. You have two situations, the lumps and his fear of vets. Just like us, the liklihood that he’ll need a vet grows as he gets older. So, if you’re willing to take the time, I recommend that ideally you get him a little more relaxed first. This would mean taking him to the vets office (or parking lot), and the driving away. On another day take him to the vets, take him in with you to say hello to the staff, then take him home. When you explain to the staff what you’re doing they’ll certainly help by making all the right, relaxed sounds and moves for him. If you can sit in a chair for 5 minutes on your visit, it will be even better for him. If you can do this maybe twice, then schedule an appt for your vet to examine him. Again, nothing bad happens, but he visits and the vet can do a gentle exam. Your vet will get an eye on those lumps, and your dog will experience a nice person whose touch is now familiar. Then you go home.

      Usually, with so many lumps, it’s still a very good idea to get some of them checked, but your vet will likely want to do an aspirate (needle biopsy on one from a couple different areas. It’s not necessary really to check them all. You may want to consider EverPup, the nutraceutical Dr. Dressler designed to keep healthy dogs healthy. http://www.everpup.com In addition to the ingredients which help bones, joints, skin, digestion, and everything else, there are dietary apoptogens included in the formula, and these go a long way torward helping push back any predisposition toward chronic conditions like cancer.
      I hope this helps. Addressing his fear of the vets in gentle ways before you have an emergency is one of the best things you can do for your boy. It takes a little bit of time over a short period, but goodness, if he needs then to have an appointment you’ve removed a big portion of stress from his life, and yours.
      All the best to you both!
      Susan

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