October is breast cancer awareness month in humans! Did you know that dogs that were spayed after their first heat cycle have rates of breast cancer similar to human women? Every year I find several malignant and benign breast tumors in animals during annual physical exams, vaccination appointments and even this year during an appointment for a scratched eye!
Any tumor you find on your pet’s underside near its mammary glands can potentially be serious. About fifty percent of the mammary tumors I remove each year from dogs are cancerous. Breast tumors in cats, while more rare, tend to be even more fatal.
The good news about breast tumors in animals, unlike humans, is that there is not usually a lot of surrounding fatty tissue. That means early detection by means of feeling and palpating (pressing firmly on an area) is generally easier in animals than in people.
In case I do not say it out loud when I am doing it, part of what I do during my appointments when I am getting “handsy down there” with your female dogs is feeling their breast tissue for any irregularities. Since we usually only see your furry kids a few times a year, monthly at home breast exams are recommended for ALL species of females, you can help your pet by doing your own check at home in between veterinary examinations.
Start by pressing on your pet’s underside with about the same pressure that you would squeeze a half full bottle of syrup. Feel for any lumps or irregularities that may be present. Many early breast tumors are small, firm, pea sized or smaller lumps under the skin and located within a few inches of a nipple. Even though a mass in this area may feel small, it is important to have the doctor examine anything you find to differentiate the mass from a less concerning fatty mass. Next, move your fingers to the base of each nipple and gently squeeze the base of each nipple (as state above with about as much pressure as you would squeeze a half full bottle of syrup). Move your fingers down the nipple to the end and check for discharge. For those of you who have milked a cow or goat before, the process is similar to milking or “stripping out” a teat. A pet that has not had puppies recently usually does not have any discharge from their nipples.
Do not forget that many dogs have very small nipples going all the way up to the level of their armpits. Even though these are usually smaller than the rear nipples, they can be affected by mammary cancer too.
We are including photos of how to do this. Unfortunately, they do not make the plastic cards with instructions and drawing on how to do this like the ones that most women get at their gynecologist’s office each year. Please do not be offended by our photos, we are not good at drawing. We hope that you understand we are trying to save lives by teaching you how to do this. Remember early detection is crucial for a more positive outcome!
Angela Albers, DVM (October 2012)
Stow Kent Animal Hospital
Isolate each nipple, palpate as described in the article, remember early detection is key!