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Advice For Lumpy Bumpy Dogs

09/11/2009

Any dog parent knows: dogs love to get little lumps and bumps on their skin, especially as they reach middle age and beyond. Some older dogs are just covered with them.

Should you worry about those annoying and sometimes unsightly lumps? Some dogs seem to get a new one every month - do you need to bother going to the vet every time?

Unfortunately, yes. Dogs get plenty of benign skin lumps, such as sebaceous cysts (those greasy ones with the yucky tan toothpaste-looking stuff inside them) and lipomas (benign fatty growths). But unfortunately, skin bumps can also be malignant, and it's important to get these examined and properly removed as soon as possible.

When you go to the vet, the doctor will examine the lump and then hopefully do a simple procedure called a "fine needle aspirate", in which a small needle is inserted into the lump to draw out a cell sample. It is very important to perform this type of aspirate in order to determine which type of lump your dog has.

Once some cells have been drawn out of the lump, which takes about 30 seconds, the sample is spread on a slide. Sometimes the vet can tell right away just by looking at the material on the slide what kind of lump it is. For example, if a chunk of that yucky brown paste squirts out onto the slide, your vet may be able to say that the lump is a benign sebaceous cyst. If the sample is just perfectly clear grease, your vet may feel comfortable stating that the lump is a lipoma.

Otherwise, your vet will want to send the slide off to the lab for a veterinary pathologist to examine. The cost for this is well worth it, and may save your dog's life.

One example of a malignant skin mass is called a "mast cell tumor"; a tumor made up of the type of cells that contain and release histamine. Mast cell tumors can be any size or shape and can look like anything. I wish I had a dollar for every mast cell tumor that looked and felt so exactly like a lipoma that I almost felt silly doing the aspirate...and then was darn glad I had!

It is super important to aspirate skin bumps and find out what they are BEFORE removing them. If a skin tumor is malignant, the surgical procedure is very different than it would be for a benign lump. For example, if the surgeon is removing a benign sebaceous adenoma because it is rupturing or getting infected, he or she just needs to remove the lump itself. However, if it's a mast cell tumor or another malignancy, it is very important to get very wide and deep margins around the tumor in order to help prevent future recurrence or metastasis. Veterinary research studies have shown exactly how many centimeters of tissue must be removed around and below a mast cell tumor in order to improve the dog's chance of survival, and the surgeon needs to know this is required. You would never make such a large, deep incision for a benign lump, so you need to know beforehand what you are dealing with.

Additionally, most general vets are comfortable removing small, benign skin lumps, but if your pet has a malignant skin mass, your vet will probably refer you to a veterinary surgical specialist for the procedure, since surgeons are trained in the most effective and safest removal of tumors. It can be very tricky to get proper margins, especially in certain areas of the body, and surgical specialists are of course skilled in the best ways to accomplish this.

Take home messages:

1. Have your dog's skin lumps examined by the vet.

2. Skin lumps should be aspirated to find out what they are, BEFORE they are removed.

3. For malignant lumps or lumps that are large or in tricky areas, referral to a surgical specialist is recommended.

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