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Small Bumps That Appear Harmless May Be a Killer Beneath the Surface

The bump appeared innocuous enough, a little red swelling on this inside of Brody’s ear, no bigger than a tic-tac. He gets little red bumps on occasion, either from scratching at his ears, trauma, or who knows what else dogs like to get into. I’ll keep an eye on it, I said.

I waited a month for it to go away, but it didn’t. It didn’t get bigger, but it didn’t get smaller either. So I was faced with a decision: go through the expense of an aspirate and dragging my dog in for such a minor thing? Or just keep an eye on it?

Conventional wisdom in veterinary medicine leaves a lot of leeway when it comes to lumps and bumps. “Just keep an eye on it unless it’s bothering him” is the mantra we’ve all uttered on multiple occasions, though no one is exactly sure what “bothering him” really means.

Dr. Sue Ettinger, a New York veterinary oncologist, spends a lot of her days frustrated by examples of “keeping an eye on it” gone bad; the small masses that, when the owner finally decided the pet was bothered, were too large to completely remove. Many times a pet who could have been cured with a simple procedure ends up in a very serious situation because our guidelines just weren’t clear enough, and Dr. Ettinger wants that to change.

Based on her experience, she decided to launch a campaign called “Why Wait, Aspirate!”  It’s very simple. If you see a mass that is

  • Bigger than a pea, or
  • Present for more than a month

Go to the vet and get it aspirated. A fine needle aspirate is a very simple procedure, usually requiring no anesthesia or sedation, and can give you a great deal of information about a mass. Even pets that have various squishy lumps under their skin may end up with some being fatty tumors, and others being something more bothersome. Unfortunately, skin masses often look or feel so similar to the naked eye that without a microscopic evaluation you just have no idea what you’re dealing with.

Dr. Sue’s voice echoed in my head as I decided to get Brody’s little lump evaluated. It was smaller than a pea, yes, but we were hitting the 30 day mark. And guess what? It was cancer.

And not just any cancer, but a mast cell tumor, which stinks. Those little buggers look small on the surface, but have tiny little splatters of spread like confetti. In order to get rid of them, the surgery needs to be aggressive. Without treatment, they can metastasize and lead to terminal disease.

Yesterday, I watched as a board certified surgeon carefully removed his whole ear flap- a necessary step, according to the oncologists we consulted. It seems extreme for such a tiny little lump, doesn’t it? But that’s what happens sometimes.

Had I waited, multiple scenarios could have resulted:

  • It could have spread to other organs, where it is very hard to treat
  • It could have spread locally, to places on his head that are not easy to remove
  • The one very unlikely scenario is that nothing would have happened; something bad would have eventually resulted.

I am all for hospice care when things get bad, but I’m also a huge proponent of doing all you can to put that day off as long as possible. The loss of an ear is a small price to pay for keeping Brody around as long as I can. It’s been a rough enough year ‘round these parts, but catching this early is good news that I’m happy to celebrate.

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang

Image: VP Photo Studio / Shutterstock

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