I am one of those people that makes car mechanics cringe when they hear how I deal with automotive problems. Even though I know something is not right with the car, I don’t usually have the knowledge and expertise to tell what it is, whether it is serious, and how it can be fixed. Responsible people take their cars in to the mechanic when they get the "something ain’t right" feeling and get the problem resolved. I, however will drive my car on I-25, feverishly hoping the problem will just go away so I won’t have to deal with it, that is until the car spontaneously combusts in rush hour traffic. Then, while everyone is honking, cursing and waving their fists at me I am forced to dial up the mechanic to see what can be done about the problem. I see this approach taken by some people in the veterinary arena in regards to lumps and bumps on their pets, and although I can sympathize with the sentiment, I hope I can inspire some of my fellow ostriches to try a more proactive approach instead.

Newly discovered lumps on pets tend to elicit a number of responses in owners. Is it cancer? The dread that the news will be bad is often enough to make people not want to know the answer. Is it nothing? We sure would feel silly if we dragged the howling cat in here for something that is not a problem. How much is it going to cost to deal with this? Most of us love our pets dearly, but the prospect of an expensive procedure can be daunting to anyone. It is enough to make people like me want to stick their heads in the sand.

When I am presented with a pet for a "check lump" appointment this is what usually happens: Some things are immediately obvious to me because I have training and experience in this area, but most lumps could be any number of things and I don’t have any more idea than the guy on the street what they are when I just look at them. That is where the magic of the microscope and endless hours in school spent looking into one comes in. In most cases I can take a small needle, painlessly collect a sample of what is in the lump, and run it under the microscope to determine if it is caused by infection, cancer, runaway fat cells, trapped waxy goo etc. Quite a few of the lumps I check are completely non-problematic, and the owners can go home and stop staring at the bump wondering if it is an evil tumor that is going to grow to the size of a watermelon. I believe that it is a law that all dogs over the age of six are required to have at least one lipoma (a completely benign glob of fat under the skin), and all older curly haired white dogs must have a robust crop of warts over their entire body. Wouldn’t it be nice to have it confirmed that these things are nothing to worry about and don’t require any treatment?

Lumps can also turn out to be bad things, namely cancer. The good news when a lump is identified as cancerous is that many things when caught early enough have a good chance for a complete cure with simple surgical removal. Surgical removal also gives us the opportunity to send it to a lab to identify the nature of the lump more specifically, give us an idea about how aggressive it is, look to see that we got it all, and get a more accurate idea of prognosis and further treatment options. It goes without saying that removing a just discovered cancerous mass that is the size of a pencil eraser is a considerably less traumatic procedure to the patient (and to the owner’s pocketbook) than trying to extricate a lump the size of a grapefruit that has been growing for the past year and sending off little satellite tumors into the bloodstream to colonize other parts of the body.

So next time you notice something unusual projecting from your pet’s body consider getting the answer sooner rather than later. I just hope you aren’t late to the appointment because some bozo with a flaming car has shut down traffic on I-25.