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Lumps and Bumps: When to Worry

When it comes to routine veterinary care, your pets should have a thorough physical examination twice a year. This is because a lot can change in the span of just six months, which is the equivalent of three to four years for humans! Sometimes, doctors might find lumps and bumps during your pet’s exam, but what happens if you find a lump on your pet while he or she is at home? What should you do next, and what should you expect?

What are the Next Steps?

If you find a lump or bump on your pet, then it is best to make an appointment with your veterinarian, and it doesn’t have to be a same-day appointment unless your pet is painful or the lesion is bleeding. Sometimes, infections or problems related to allergies can cause small lumps and bumps on your pet’s skin. Papules and pustules are a few examples, and your vet will be able to determine if this is something that requires antibiotics or topical treatments. For more information on these kinds of lesions, check out our article on Dog Allergies.

If the skin lesion(s) do not improve with initial therapy, then your vet may recommend additional testing like an allergy screening or skin culture. However, if your veterinarian feels that the bump is not being caused by an infection or allergy, then she may recommend a fine needle aspirate test. This is when the doctor uses a needle and syringe in order to collect cells from the bump so that they might be viewed under a microscope, which can help your vet determine the nature of the bump. Results may be obtained that day by your veterinarian, but in some cases, the microscope slides can be submitted to a specialist for further analysis and can take up to one week for results. This method is minimally invasive and usually doesn’t require sedation for your pet.

If the bump is too firm and does not yield a sufficient number of cells, then the results may come back inconclusive and a wedge or punch biopsy may be recommended. This test involves collecting a small piece of tissue from the bump site. Biopsies are more invasive than needle aspirates and sometimes require sedation in order to perform them. Bleeding is a risk factor, and your vet may need to use some stitches to close the biopsy site. The sample from the bump is then submitted to a specialist for further analysis, and it can take one to two weeks for results. Biopsies are more likely to yield results than fine needle aspirates.

How Soon Should the Bump Be Tested?

In some cases, your veterinarian may tell you to “monitor the bump” or “call if the lump is painful,” but how long should you monitor the bump, and how do you know if it’s painful for your pet?

According to veterinary oncologist Dr. Sue Ettinger, lumps and bumps that are at least one centimeter wide and/or have been present for one month should be tested1. This is because you might catch a malignant or harmful type of lump before it has the opportunity to become larger and more difficult to treat. Also, surgically removing the growth without testing it beforehand is risky because certain malignant cancers may require very wide surgical margins in order to remove all of the tumor. If some of the cancer is left behind, then additional surgery or other treatments may be necessary.

Even malignant lumps and bumps can be present without causing obvious discomfort. In some cases, if your pet is scratching, licking, or chewing the bump, then this may indicate pain or discomfort. Bumps can also become inflamed and rupture or start bleeding. If your pet experiences this, then make sure to contact your veterinarian right away.

Examples of Lumps and Bumps

As mentioned above, some lumps and bumps can be signs of allergies or infection. Bumps can be benign (non-harmful) like fluid-filled cysts or tumors made up of fatty tissue. Bumps can also be malignant or harmful, starting out as discrete nodules but with cells that penetrate deep into surrounding tissues or spread to other parts of the body.

One of the most common benign tumors is the lipoma, which is comprised of fatty tissue. It is usually a soft tumor with few to no deep attachments, and removing it via surgery is curative. However, simply touching the growth does not definitively diagnose it as a lipoma. Some malignant growths like mast cell tumors can look like almost any lump or bump, which makes early testing extremely important. Other examples of benign growths include the following:

  • Apocrine cysts
  • Sebaceous cysts
  • Histiocytomas
  • Perianal gland adenomas

Malignant tumors are the most concerning because these are the kind that can spread or metastasize to other parts of the body, which can cause serious illness and even death. Mast cell tumors are the most common type of malignant skin tumor, and they can be fairly localized or can spread to areas like the spleen, liver, bone marrow, and gastrointestinal tract. Surgical removal usually requires wide margins, which means that your veterinarian will need to remove an extra two to three centimeters of skin and tissue from around the mass in order to remove all of the cancer cells. If the margins are not complete and some of the cancer is left behind, then additional surgery is sometimes necessary. Additional treatments like radiation and chemotherapy may also be recommended. Examples of other malignant growths are:

  • Soft tissue sarcomas
  • Squamous cell carcinomas
  • Fibrosarcomas

When to Worry

It can be difficult to avoid worrying when you find a lump or bump on your pet, especially when there is the chance that a tiny growth could be something malignant. The most important thing to remember is to bring it to the attention of your veterinarian as soon as possible, and don’t be afraid to discuss testing lumps and bumps, especially if they are more than one centimeter wide. Some oncologists encourage pet owners to check their pets for new bumps at least once a week, and this is especially important for pets who have had other lumps in the past. An early diagnosis could result in early intervention, and in those cases, you may be able to avoid a lot more worry in the future!



  1. Sue Ettinger, DVM, DACVIM, “Veterinary Oncology: What to Do with Lumps and Bumps,”

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