A Fatty Tumor Lipoma Pets

Finding a lump under a beloved pet's skin is a disturbing event and definitely warrants a trip to the veterinarian's office for an evaluation. Happily, it is not uncommon for the verdict to turn out to be "just a lipoma" or simply a fatty tumor and nothing to worry about. Still, the lipoma is not a condition that all pet owners are likely to have heard of so we will review the meaning of the lipoma diagnosis.

The Lipocyte (also Called the Adipocyte)

Fat is an important resource to our bodies. It is burned aerobically in times of steady exertion and in time of starvation, and it provides insulation against the cold. Our bodies have a nearly unlimited capacity to store fat, which has unfortunately led to an epidemic of obesity. Fat is stored within lipocytes, which are more commonly referred to as fat cells. These cells consist of a thin cell membrane and nucleus around a large fat storage space called a vacuole. The normal fat cell can enlarge spectacularly as it stores large amounts of fat.

The Lipoma

Any tissue can grow a tumor and fat tissue is no different. It is common for fat cells to form benign tumors called lipomas. The tumorous fat cell grows at a different rate from the surrounding fat tissue and accumulates more fat, thus forming a lump. Depending on how much fat the lipoma stores, the lump can be large. If the pet is overweight, the lipoma will be all the more obvious and all the larger; as the overweight pet loses weight, the lipomas will shrink though they are unlikely to completely go away.

The lipoma is benign, meaning it does not invade other tissues or spread in a destructive way.
Some dogs, however, develop multiple lipomas that can be large. The fat deposits in any body area can potentially grow into a lipoma. Most lipomas are found under the skin or in muscle tissue rather than internally. Lipomas are mostly seen in dogs, particularly older overweight dogs, though they are occasionally seen in cats.

How do we know it's a Lipoma?

The lipoma has a fairly characteristic texture: rubbery and relatively soft. However, it is probably not adequately accurate to make the diagnosis based on simply how a lump feels. A needle aspirate can be easily performed by using a syringe to withdraw some cells from the mass, and then fat droplets are looked for on a microscope slide. This procedure is commonly performed and generally provides adequate results. Of course, if there is any question, the tissue can be biopsied for accuracy.

Should the Lipoma be Removed?

In most cases the problem is a cosmetic one. If the mass is unsightly, it can usually be removed provided that the patient has no health problems that would make anesthesia a risk. In some cases, a large lipoma can grow in an inconvenient location where it is uncomfortable or interferes with movement. In these instances, removing the lipoma is probably a good idea. Often, lipomas are left alone if they do not seem to bother the patient. Surgical removal is usually easy as most lipomas can simply be peeled out of their location.

Malignant Lipoma

An infiltrative lipoma infiltrates other tissues and is more difficult to remove. This type of lipoma does not peel out, is not encapsulated (enclosed within a capsule), and does not have obvious margins. There is a 36% recurrence rate for this type of lipoma whereas ordinary lipomas do not generally grow back.

Though it is rare, there is a malignant version of the lipoma called a liposarcoma. This is also a more infiltrative tumor though it does not generally spread through the body in the way we usually think of malignancy. A wide surgical excision is needed to control this type of fat tumor.

All three forms of lipoma will look the same when aspirated for fat cells during an office examination.

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