Imagine petting your dog or cat and finding a lump, something you hadn’t noticed there before. Feeling alarmed, you turn to an online search engine, which yields lots of scary diagnoses: cancer, tumor, cyst, fatty mass.
What does this all mean? And which condition does your pet actually have?
According to Dr. Dana Connell, a third-year veterinary oncology resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, the best action for pet owners to take in this common scenario is seeking veterinary advice.
“Lumps can be found anywhere on a pet’s body,” Connell said, “though they are typically found on the top of the head or chin, in areas where the animal is frequently touched.” Lumps, or masses, also appear on the legs and underside of the body, but are less likely to be discovered there by the owner.
The size of a mass varies, depending on what it is made of and how long it has been on the pet. Masses are seen commonly in both dogs and cats, but the tendency in practice is to see more dogs. Any breed of dog or cat may develop a mass.
What is it?
It is important to determine what the lump is so that it can be treated appropriately.
Different types of masses will have different consistencies. Those that are fatty in nature will be underneath the skin, soft and freely movable. Other masses can be hard and immovable.
“The pet’s age may provide an indication of what the lump is,” Connell said. For example, a young animal is more likely to have an abscess, cyst or trauma manifest as a lump. A veterinarian will take into account how old the patient is and how long the mass has been there.
“Usually the first step for a diagnosis is to perform a fine-needle aspirate,” Connell said. During this procedure, a thin needle is inserted into the mass to collect cells. The cells are then placed on a slide and examined under a microscope. Some mass types, such round cell tumors and carcinomas, are easily identifiable with a fine-needle aspirate.
If this procedure does not yield a diagnosis, then a biopsy is often the next step. During a biopsy, a small section of the mass is removed for testing. A biopsy can be done under local anesthesia or full general anesthesia, depending on the animal’s temperament and what the veterinarian determines to be the safest method.
“If neither of these procedures provides a conclusive diagnosis, your veterinarian may recommend a CT scan,” Connell said. CT stands for “computed tomography,” an imaging method uses a computer to generate a three-dimensional representation of the body from a series of X-rays. This imaging option provides a clearer picture of more invasive lumps and is especially useful for surgical planning and staging. This can be used in addition to the biopsy.
“After we determine what the mass is, we can discuss treatment options with the owner,” Connell said, “A lot of times owners are afraid to come to the veterinarian after they’ve found a lump because they fear it is cancer and a death sentence for the pet.”
The truth is, having the pet examined as soon as the lump is found will give the pet the best chance at a healthy life.
A tumor can either be benign or malignant. If benign, the veterinarian will likely advise the owners to monitor the lump to check for any changes or growth. If the animal becomes bothered by the lump, then it could be removed. A malignant tumor will require more aggressive treatment tailored to the individual animal. For some masses, the tumor can be removed with surgery, which may be followed with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
“In June, the Veterinary Teaching Hospital began offering radiation therapy with a state-of-the-art linear accelerator that delivers a high degree of precision. That means it targets tumors and spares nearby healthy tissue,” Connell said. “We now have the most advanced technology for veterinary radiation cancer treatment in the Midwest.”
Connell’s main advice for owners is to seek expert opinions from a veterinary professional as soon as possible. “Accurate information is empowering, whereas the volume of information and potential diagnoses found online can be overwhelming.”