Editor’s note: Have you seen the Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our December-January issue. Subscribe to Dogster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.
I’ve never met a veterinarian with superhero vision. Instead, we have to rely on proven and reliable diagnostic tests to confirm a diagnosis and come up with effective treatment plans.
The Becker family recently found itself with the unexpected opportunity of adopting another shelter dog. Quin’C is probably a 6- to 8-year-old Dalmatian/Pit Bull mix, found on the streets of Kansas City and taken to the city shelter.
Quin’C was taken in by a local veterinary technician program and received some needed veterinary care prior to being put up for adoption. He had numerous skin lesions and a large, almost comedic lump on top of his head. Was it a lump from trauma — he might have been hit by a car while running loose — or something serious completely separate from road rash?
He was examined by lots of folks on faculty with veterinary degrees, training, and expertise. Even with that combined veterinary firepower, it was necessary to do more than look at and feel that lump to know what it was.
Which doesn’t mean you don’t start with a hands-on and visual exam. The veterinary team looked at the lump to see if it was darkened, had irregular margins, or seemed to be growing. Was it attached to underlying tissues and freely movable? Did it seem painful? Was it solid or filled with fluid? How were the area lymph nodes? Finally, some cells from the lump were taken and examined to determine what type of growth it was: Fatty, cancerous, inflamed?
Quin’C, it turns out, had a benign, trivial fluid-filled lump; nothing to worry about. (Editor’s note: Since writing this column, Quin’C has been diagnosed with mast cell tumors. To follow his progress, like Dr. Becker’s Facebook page.) But veterinary oncologist Dr. Sue Ettinger told me a story with a far less happy outcome.
Dr. Ettinger is also known as Dr. Sue, Cancer Vet. She’s one of the top veterinary oncologists in the world and co-author of the Dog Cancer Survival Guide. But she still missed a cancer diagnosis when examining a lump on Smokey, a dog belonging to her head technician, Amanda.
“This was a much-loved dog,” Dr. Sue said. “He was 10 years old, handsome, and he spread love and happiness with every wag of his tail. Amanda adored him.”
Over the years, Dr. Sue had taken cells with a needle from many lumps on Smokey, and they were always harmless fatty tumors known as lipomas. So when Amanda said he had a new lump, no one thought it was a big deal, and they took their time taking cells from the lump, a procedure known as aspiration.
“We were complacent,” Dr. Sue said. “All the previous masses had been nothing. Why would this one be different?”
But it was different. By the time they aspirated the lump, it was clear that it wasn’t another lipoma. Instead, the tests indicated it was a soft tissue sarcoma, a malignant cancerous tumor.
“How could I have missed this?” Dr. Sue said. “Could we have minimized this problem if we’d caught it earlier? I’m a veterinary oncologist. Amanda worked for me and would do anything for this dog. I failed them.”
Smokey had surgery to remove the tumor, but it required a very big surgery to completely remove it. Happily, he recovered well. His story inspired Dr. Sue to launch a cancer awareness program called See Something, Do Something: Why Wait? Aspirate!®, which is designed to encourage veterinarians and pet owners alike to check out all suspicious lumps and bumps on pets.
“Far too frequently, veterinarians rely on our visual and physical exam to decide if it’s worth testing a mass,” she continued. “Waiting until the mass grows or starts bothering the pet should not be an option. We’re veterinarians, not microscopes and not psychics. We need to do diagnostics to know for sure.
Above all, she said, avoid complacency. “No matter how many lumps you’ve already aspirated, the one you don’t could be a tumor that will respond well to early treatment or surgery — but only if you catch it early.”