As small animal veterinarians we see at least a dog a day for “check lump”. The scenario and dialogue usually goes something like this: “Today while grooming Sparky I found this lump on his tummy; what could it be Doc?” The answer to that question usually requires a few more questions or our own. Masses are often present long before we notice them – especially in a long-haired dog. However, knowing when the mass was first noticed is very important. We also need to know if it has grown or changed in appearance over a short time period. While there are exceptions, rapidly changing masses are more often cancerous and need to be investigated as soon as possible in order to obtain the best possible outcome. Other information such as appetite, attitude, weight loss or gain, and general quality of the hair and skin are also important to know.
It is a rare mass that can be diagnosed by sight alone. It is always advisable to perform further diagnostics and “dig a little deeper”. This may include a simple aspiration of cells or fluid from the mass, a biopsy of part of the mass, or a complete biopsy in which the mass is removed in entirety. Depending on the location, size and extensiveness of the lump in question, complete removal may not only provide a definitive diagnosis but can also be curative if sufficient margins are taken and metastasis has not occurred. Additional diagnostics that your doctor may want to perform include bloodwork, abdominal ultrasound and x-rays. Some masses may have already spread to other organs by the time they are discovered and knowing this will guide therapy and help in determining a more accurate prognosis.
It’s important to remember that not all lumps are cancer. Foreign bodies can cause a localized reaction resulting in a lump; these will often have an open area with drainage. Some masses are considered benign, meaning they have a low potential for spread. They can still cause problems however if they impede normal movement or if they grow so large that they interfere with other organs. These masses should be removed even though they are not considered cancer.
So the next time you notice a lump or bump, don’t hesitate to point it out to your veterinarian. Simple diagnostics such as a fine needle aspiration can be performed without sedation and can provide a diagnosis. Bear in mind that further sampling may be necessary if the mass is large – there are often areas of inflammation and dead cells which can cover up the actual type of cell present. You may be advised to watch the mass closely, or it may be recommended that the lump be removed immediately. Only your veterinarian can make that call however so it is always best to ask before taking the “wait and see” approach!