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Evaluating Lumps and Bumps in Dogs

It’s fair to say most of us dog owners spend a lot of time cuddling and patting our much-loved pooches and if we’re totally honest we actually get just as much enjoyment from caressing them - as they do from our touch.

But then… your fingers detect something foreign: a lump or a bump that wasn’t there before. Awoogah! That’s the panic button going off in your head. “Don’t freak out!” says D
r. Kathy Lin, who’s seen more lumps and bumps than most of us have had hot dinners.

Dr. Lin with her 8-year old Maltese Kobe

“I can understand perfectly why pet parents might feel frightened when they first discover a bump, but it’s really important not to leap to conclusions – or any other word starting with ‘c’ like cancer-because the vast majority of these lumps or bumps either spontaneously disappear or can be easily treated once your vet or vet specialist has correctly identified its type and determined a treatment plan.” she said. 

Dr Lin is both an Emergency Vet and a General Practice Vet dividing her time between the Animal Referral Hospital and Emergency Centre at Baulkham Hills and Greencross Vets at Castle Hill.

But before we talk about the most common lumps and bumps, here are what some ‘red-flag words’ actually mean… which might also help you avoid hitting that panic button!

  • Tumour: the word ‘tumour’ is simply a generic term for an unusual swelling of any part of the body caused by cells in that area multiplying and clumping together. It does NOT necessarily mean something awful is happening.
The size of tumours can vary enormously: e.g. they may be referred to as masses - which are larger, or nodules - which refer to smaller lumps. Almost any type of cell or tissue can develop into one of three types of tumour which is either: 
  • Benign: Non-cancerous, non-spreading and generally do not recur after being removed. 
  • Pre-malignant: Not cancerous but shows signs its developing the properties of cancer. 
  • Malignant: Malignant tumours are cancerous. Without treatment they grow and spread in a process known as metastasis.
The take-home message is that all tumours need to be watched for changes in size or appearance as even some benign tumours can eventually become premalignant, and then malignant.

The most common lumps or bumps & what to do about them

Fatty lipomas, cysts, haematomas (aka blood blisters), warts, blocked sebaceous glands, abscesses from a foreign body or infected wound.

#1. Lipomas

A lipoma is a fatty tumour which grows under a dog’s skin, usually under the armpit or on their chest or belly.

Conner with a Fibrolipoma (benign) on front right paw;
it was removed after doubling in size quickly...
They’re soft, movable and very common in older pets or on dogs carrying a bit more weight than they should.

Although Lipomas are usually benign, which means they’re not cancerous, you should ask your vet to double check which they’ll do with either a needle biopsy (ref. Fine Needle Aspiration below) so they can view a small sample of the lump’s cells under a microscope or by sending a tissue biopsy sample to a specialist pathologist for identification.

“They say you can’t judge a book by its cover and vets can’t tell if a lipoma is cancerous or not just by its appearance, so while the vast majority are harmless, if it is cancerous detecting it earlier makes treatment simpler and could save your dog’s life,” says Dr Lin.

Most lipomas don’t cause any discomfort but if they grow too large or impact your dog’s quality of life they can usually be easily removed.

Lick Granuloma caused by a dog
excessively licking a lump on his paw
“We see a lot of lipomas in general practice and I always tell pet owners that if their dog gets one, it’s more likely to get more in the future but not to stress out over it, instead keep a close eye on it to make sure it’s remaining round, soft and easily mobile,” Dr Lin says.

“If it suddenly starts growing rapidly, changes colour or shape or one part of the lump’s harder than another then a re-check is definitely needed,” she added. Dr Lin says she only removes lipomas if they’re affecting the dog’s mobility, for example if they’re bulging into their armpit or lower belly or affecting where they bend their legs at the wrist or elbow.

#2. Cysts & Adenomas

There are many different types of cysts but the most common are sebaceous cysts. These are a bit like teenage acne in humans – it’s when the oil glands which lubricate a dog’s hair and skin become plugged up with dead skin cells, sweat or even water and form small bumps like pimples.

Ruptured Sebaceous Cyst
In most cases, the cysts will burst on their own and not cause any problems, but sometimes the cysts can become infected or cause chronic irritation requiring their removal and ideally a pathology check to ensure it’s not a more serious problem.

“It’s also quite common for sebaceous glands in middle-aged to older dogs to develop small, benign tumours called sebaceous adenomas,” says Dr Lin.

Although they can look ugly – a bit like small warts – they usually don’t hurt, so unless they repeatedly bleed or become infected through self-trauma ie your dog bites or scratches them, in most cases they won’t have to be removed.

Any breed can get them, however there are certain breeds predisposed to sebaceous adenomas: English Cocker Spaniels, Cocker Spaniels, Samoyeds, Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, West Highland White Terriers, Cairn Terriers, Dachshunds, Miniature Poodles, Toy Poodles, Shih Tzus, Basset Hounds, Beagles, and Kerry Blue Terriers.

Another reason some owners choose to have sebaceous adenomas removed is if they constantly secrete excess sebum which creates a constant oil slick on the dog’s hair and rubs off on anything the dog touches.

“It’s crucial to your dog’s health to monitor any lump, bump or adenoma because if it grows or changes appearance you’ll need to advise your vet to check whether that benign adenoma has transformed into its much less common but nasty, cancerous cousin, a sebaceous carcinoma,” says Dr Lin.

#3. Haematomas

A haematoma is the official name for a blood blister – and if you or someone you know has ever had one – you’ll know how tricky and painful they can be.

Haematoma caused by a foreign body
Haematomas occur when a blood vessel bursts and creates a pool of blood underneath the surface of the skin

In dogs, the most common location for a haematoma is inside their ears, especially in breeds with long, floppy ears because they’re more prone to irritating ear infections, inflammation, parasites or even a foreign body in the ear which make them scratch incessantly resulting in them inadvertently rupturing the delicate blood vessels in their ear flap.

This is definitely not an injury you should deal with at home. The blood and any clots will need to be carefully drained and cleansed, pain relief provided, and the dog may require additional treatment such as sutures across the pinna (ear flap) to prevent the area filling with blood again." explains Dr. Lin.

#4. Warts

Warts are not only gross-looking, they're also extremely contagious! The oral papillomavirus which causes these pesky lumps is often picked up while your pooch is playing nicely at the local dog park or doggy day care.

“These warts have a distinctive cauliflower-like appearance and most, but not all, will fall off after a few months although unfortunately once infected it’s not unusual for this virus to randomly reappear and produce more warts,” says Dr Lin.

Dogs under the age of 2 with immature immune systems are most at risk
 of picking up this unwelcome virus which can occasionally affect other parts of the dog’s face.

The good news is that the canine version of papillomavirus is NOT able to be spread to any other species. “Of course, if the warts should start to bleed, or their size impacts on the dog’s ability to eat or breathe, then surgery may be necessary. Alternatively, there are also several medications which can speed up their disappearance,” says Dr Lin.

#5. Abcesses

An abscess is a pocket of pus which is your dog’s immune system trying to build a barrier between some form of penetrating wound and the rest of its body.
“Abscesses are the most common type of lump we see in emergency at the Animal Referral Hospital,” says Dr Lin “That’s because owners are usually quick to pick up their pet is in pain or they notice a smell or material leaking,” she added.

Typical appearance of grass seed entry wound
Any type of cut or scrape has the potential to turn into an abscess due to bacteria entering a wound while yet another common cause are grass seeds.

“My own dog Kobe started gnawing and chewing at his paw and I discovered he had an abscess caused by a Bindii seed which had become embedded in the skin between his toes” Dr Lin explains.

Fortunately, after draining and flushing the abscess, Kobe was quickly back to full health. “Some dogs may also require a course of antibiotics depending on the severity or location of the abscess but as in the case of all bumps, the earlier you see your vet the better the result” Dr Lin says.

Fine Needle Aspiration - Explanation

Hate needles? Don’t worry – our dogs don’t share our phobias and to be honest, they probably won’t even notice when your vet carries out this procedure and they probably won’t need sedation.

Here’s what happens. The vet or vet nurse will gently insert a tiny needle into the lump and suction out a few drops to be placed on a glass side, so it can be stained and then checked under a microscope for abnormalities.

It’s simple, easy and fast and gives your vet the information they need to advise on the best course of treatment.

But if you receive the worst news possible - a diagnosis of canine cancer - please take heart in the fact that there is now a real chance of hope for many types of common cancers thanks to the Stereotactic Radiation Therapy now available in Australia.

Vet Top Tips

1. Don’t squeeze anything that looks like a pimple!
2. If a lump is growing rapidly – go see your vet rapidly.

Written by Kaye Browne, January 2018 for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved)

Kaye Browne is a Sydney-based journalist and story-teller who discovered more than a decade ago that her real passion in life is discovering new ways to make complicated ‘veterinary info’ both fun AND educational for pet parents.

The former TV and radio News & Current Affairs Presenter shares her life with her latest rescue pooch ‘Chica’, two very spoilt Bantam chooks who no longer lay eggs and her VETtalk TV co-producer and husband Brian Pickering.

You’ll find loads of free bite-sized videos and podcasts about all kinds of dog behaviour and health issues – and how to handle them - on their website.

About The Animal Referral Hospital

The Animal Referral Hospital provides 24/7 Emergency and Critical Care services as well as Specialist Veterinary Care at 7 locations across Australia with additional ARH locations to be announced soon.

Each ARH hospital is equipped with the latest state-of-the-art technology to ensure the best  pet emergency treatment, after-hours monitoring or specific diagnosis and treatment by a specialist veterinarian. The three ARH hospitals in NSW are located in Homebush, Baulkham Hills and Gosford (Central Coast). There are also hospitals in Canberra, Brisbane plus two in Victoria: Point Cook and Essendon
So if you have a pet emergency and your usual Vet is closed, phone your nearest ARH for advice.

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