Mostly, Lipomas in Dogs Look Bad but Aren’t Bad

Usually they're nothing more than a minor cosmetic problem

August 14, 2017 (published)

Large Lipoma on a Bassett

This dog has a large lipoma on the belly that was removed. Photo by Dr. Diane Sullivan
You’ve probably seen a senior dog at some point that looks a bit…well, lumpy, right? As dogs age, many of them will develop lumps, tumors or masses under their skin. Many (thankfully, most) of these are benign growths called lipomas. That ‘lipo’ part – as in liposuction – means fat; a lipoma is a benign tumor of fat cells.

Not all skin growths are benign, however. Many nasty types of aggressive cancer can also form in the skin.

So, how do we tell if a lump is benign (meaning, not likely to spread or cause problems elsewhere in the body) or malignant (meaning it can spread to the rest of the body, or cause serious problems where it is)? One way is to stick a needle in it and suck up a few cells; this is known as an aspirate. An aspirate is not a biopsy, although on occasion you’ll hear people incorrectly refer to it as a needle biopsy. These are the same people who call bread “raw toast” and refer to water as “snowman blood.” This is incorrect.

Some skin tumors that can look like lipomas but be aggressive and malignant include mast cell tumors, lymphoma, hemangiosarcomas and a host of others. These can sometimes be diagnosed with an aspirate, but might need a biopsy.

The nice thing about an aspirate is that it’s simple and inexpensive: just about every vet can do it. The downside is that some masses don’t shed cells easily, and all you have to look at are some cells on a slide. Sometimes that’s enough (as with lipomas) but sometimes you need a hunk of tissue to slice thinly to look at the arrangement of cells under a higher-powered microscope, which usually involves sending the sample to a pathologist. That chunk of tissue is a biopsy (no snowmen or toast involved), and it’s a surgical procedure that usually entails heavy sedation or anesthesia.

Performing an aspirate is the preferred way to diagnose a lipoma. They are usually quite easy to hit with a needle, and an aspirate is quick, painless and doesn’t require sedation or anesthesia. Most lipomas will shed cells easily and most vets who have ever worked a microscope can diagnose them right in the clinic with no need to get a pathologist involved. It’s usually a slam dunk.

Lipomas may look bad, but in most cases they’re unlikely to cause problems.

When can a lipoma cause a problem? We might recommend removal if it happens to be growing in a place that impedes getting around, or if it gets so big that carrying an extra few pounds of fat becomes hard to do. I’ve seen several large masses - the size of my head - that grew in the armpit or groin, and dogs are literally tripping over them. They can become so big they need to be removed just so a dog can walk. Those are a rarity, but they can happen.

I had a lipoma, too.

It wasn’t a big one, but it was big enough that I had a noticeable lump on my back [insert appropriate Quasimodo joke here]. I asked my GP about taking it off and he palpated it a bit and said "Sure, I can do it.”

He was halfway into it (he used local anesthesia and gave me some leather to bite on) when he said: "I think I'm in over my head here.” Not fun to hear when your skin is open and blood is running into your armpit.

Nevertheless, he pressed on and removed it. He found the limits of where his local anesthesia was by cutting something, I'd scream, and that was our little code that I needed more local anesthetic.

He botched closing up the incision, too. He only closed the skin layer, a mistake any first-year med student would’ve caught. I developed a big pocket of fluid called a seroma and had to have a drain placed in it. (Normally you close something like that in three layers; I couldn’t see what he was doing, so I didn’t catch it either.) I was a gooey, oozing mess for a couple of weeks, like a walking plate of nachos.

I still have a lovely scar; I tell people it is either from a bar fight or from that time I got shanked with a shiv in prison. (It depends on my mood.)

My non-medical mom called after the procedure and asked "How's your lymphoma?" Lipoma, mom. Lipoma.

In any case, most lipomas in dogs are nothing more than a minor cosmetic problem. Make sure your vet sticks a needle in it to confirm its benign nature and aspirate or biopsy any other lumps that are suspicious. Cancer can look just like a lipoma, so better to be safe than sorry and don’t fall into the trap of thinking it looks benign – your eyes aren’t microscopes.

And please keep an eye on those little lipoma suckers; they can grow and cause problems if they’re in a high-motion area. It’s far easier to take them off when they’re small. And tell your vet to remember to close the skin in three layers while you’re at it. Or don’t and maybe your dog and I can compare scars.


Jan Cabbiness
February 25, 2021

My 11 year old dachshund just had 2 lipomaS removed.  One on her chest under a muscle was the size of a baked potato.  It was in a dangerous place that could disturb other organs inside. He also took a small one off in armpit. It was a serious surgery yesterday. She’s bandaged with stretchy stuff over her whole length between front and back legs. On pain pills until not needed, but eats good, drinks good, very sluggish. We did not sleep well last night. I’m in touch with the vets if needed.

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
January 25, 2021

Hi Victor, with any skin mass (even one previously diagnosed as a lipoma), you should have your veterinarian examine it if there are recent changes to size, color, or texture.

Victor Jacobsen
January 22, 2021

My dog has a lipoma that recently got hard. Is that normal?

January 19, 2021

I have a basset who has exactly the same problem as Nicole's pooch except it is by her left leg. Her vet did a aspirate and it showed benign fat cells.  It is getting so huge though, I don't know what to do.  I've taken her to 3 vets, and they all said as long as it's not bothering her, they wouldn't recommend surgery (she's almost 16yo).  What can I do for her?

Darry Block
November 20, 2020

Awesome story. Thanks! I feel better!

Colin Lang
October 2, 2020

My dog, a nine year old Dalmatian began developing lipomas about a year ago. My vet tested three or four of them to determine that they were indeed lipomas and not tumors. Satisfied I let them be - until my dog decided that she wasn't happy with a fairly large one on her abdomen and decided it was her mission to extract it. Within 2 days there was a weeping abscess on the skin over the site. We made the decision to remove the lipoma. I suspect that given her determination to remove the lipomas if she can, this will be the first of many surgical procedures to remove them.

September 24, 2020

I like your humor. My dog has a tumor on top of his back that will not stop growing. He looks like a camel and it is literally about three times as large as his head. It's been growing for about 1.5 years. Now I feel it is too dangerous to remove. He just turned 11 years old. I don't know what to do. Leave it since it doesn't seem to bother him or get it removed before it does? I have seen about 4 different vets and during this time and they are all conflicted.

July 15, 2020

My dog has lipoma. She got two surgeries for removal but it still comes back a month or so after the surgeries. After the second surgery, we decided not to have any more surgeries as the vet advised us not to do so anymore, and it came back again and getting bigger. Now, my dog has difficulty breathing we assume because of the mass on her chest. Yesterday, I thought she’s going to die because she just lied on the bed and her eyes were cloudy. Please, help what’s the best thing to do in these cases? These past few days, she’s having fever but  only in the morning and she’s breathing like asthmatic people would do (I am one). She still eats a lot and excited to see her food during her feeding time.

J Chenault
June 7, 2020

My 13 year old beagle retriever mix has a tumor similar to the Bassett in the photo. I took her to the vet late last summer when I first noticed it and the vet told me since it was a hard mass she was 90 percent sure it was cancer and said if I stick a needle in it it most likely will not stop bleeding and that if I wasn't prepared to spend thousands of dollars on surgery and cancer treatment it would be best to leave it alone until it either starts to effect her quality of life of becomes painful for her and then put her down. Lately I've noticed her trying to scratch it gently with her right rear paw, I have also noticed that it seems to be leaking clear fluid but she still doesn't seem to be in any pain. After reading this article I'm thinking it might be a benign lipoma that might have been dealt with when it was smaller. Is it too late and too big to deal with now?

May 31, 2020

Hello I have a dog where I. Found a area around the genitals and it's leg where there is loose fatty tissue that feels like a ball. Should I be worried and the dogs age is 9 yrs old

April 7, 2020

My dog  developed a small lipoma several years ago which three different veterinarians told me to ignore. It’s on his back hip and has never seemed to bother him. However, it has grown to be so big and heavy.   It must be painful for his knees when going up and down any steps.  When his knees were x-rayed two years ago, I was told they were “shot”.   He did seem to improve considerably after taking a daily dose of joint chews.  But I feel so sorry for him and wish I could give him a better quality of life.   Our vet (deceased) told  May a couple of years ago that if he were to remove the lipoma now, he would probably have to amputate one of Oscar’s legs in order to obtain enough skin to suture the opening back together! What a difficult decision to present to me!  Is there not any thing available the word at least partially reduce the size of this lipoma, with surgery for part of it, a libel section type technique, or something else? I don’t know where to turn or what to do!

January 30, 2020

My dog has a huge lipoma that the vet says is under his stomach pushing his stomach out. It has gotten to the point his back right leg/hip flairs out around it. He is 9 years old.  Is surgery too risky?

Janaury 24, 2024

Our dog is 11 yrs old (Toy Fox Terrier-12 lbs) and had a big fatty tumor surgically removed 2 weeks ago from groin area. No biopsy prior to surgery. Three days after post op he developed a high fever and the incisional area became red & swollen. His vet started him on a antibiotic & vetprofen. The following day our dog was unable to stand and his front legs crossed. It has now been going on 3 days of not eating, drinking or standing. The vet is baffled. His temp is back to normal but he’s still not eating nor standing. Xray on heart and lungs ruled out issues but I’m not clear if full body xray taken. Is this a common drawback from surgical on a older dog to remove a fatty cyst? We were cautiously optimistic his issue would correct itself in a few days but as of tonight I feel we are needing to address a difficult decision. We do not want him suffering. We have no idea of what or why this happened 2 weeks out from surgery and after his stitches were removed. Is this common?

M Carpenter
January 8, 2020

My dog has a fatty lipoma but is too old to remove it. It's starting to turn dark. What does that mean? We are taking her back to the vet but I've been researching and can't find anything.

Rafael Diaz
December 4, 2019

My dog has a very large fatty tumor on his chest, he is about 11years old. My vet said it would be to risky to remove it because of his age and weight but other vets said they would remove it His tumor looks like the one on the Bassett

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
November 23, 2019

Hi Rebecca, Unfortunately there are too many factors involved -- the size, location, and involvement of the lipoma, the dog's age and condition, etc. -- for us to be able to answer that question for you in any meaningful way. Your best bet would be to have her examined by your veterinarian.

Rebecca Lane
November 22, 2019

My dad's dog has one so big she hardly can walk , but we have no money to help her so is it expensive surgery ??

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
August 5, 2019

Hi Dee Dee, Unfortunately, without knowing and examining your dog, it's impossible to say what's causing the darkened skin.  You mentioned that your regular veterinarian just retired.  With an older dog on several medications, this would probably be a great time to build a relationship with a new veterinarian in your area and also get a fresh set of eyes on the issue.

Dee Dee Jackson
August 4, 2019

My Italian Greyhound had 3 surgeries to remove one in the middle of his chest.  The second one came back in the same spot within 3 months.  Then the third one a year later, same spot.  Then it has gone crazy.  He has them all over.  A vet did aspirate one by his penis and it was fat.  He just turned 11, has to take liver and thyroid meds daily.  Now the skin where the tumors are, are turning black.  He licks at them a lot.  My Vet just retired last week and closed her clinic.  So what does the dark skin mean?

Phyllis DeGioia
May 31, 2019

Hi Ellen, The cost varies depending on what region you live in, the size of the lipoma, the age and health of your dog, and a number of other factors. I'm afraid we can't answer that question. Your best bet is to call around.

May 31, 2019

My Miniature Schnauzer has 2 lipomas - one under his chest and the other on one of his back legs. A needle aspiration has been done to confirm this. However the one under his chest seems to have sprouted another lipoma - so now there are two side by side! What is the average cost to have a lipoma removed?

Dr. Tony Johnson
August 19, 2017

Hi Janet, We'll post this in the comments so everyone can benefit, but here's what I would say.  I think it has to do with the human tendency to ignore little things and be optimistic (perhaps overly so) that things will go smoothly. Couple that with pet owner's usual reluctance to spend money unless they absolutely have to (and veterinarian's reluctance to push them) and you can see the nexus of the problem. Thanks for bringing up a good point and furthering the discussion

Janet Eckstrom
August 18, 2017

Dr Johnson, I have worked in both private practice and ER clinics. The family vets would Dx the lipoma and tell the owner not to worry. The owner would ask about removal, the vet would say "nah don't worry it's benign". Fast forward to the ER clinic where we were presented with a giant lipoma that is ulcerated or impeding movement.And still benign. Why are family vets reluctant to remove lipomas when they are small and manageable?

A Slaugh
August 16, 2017

Great information, and loved humor. ("Snowman blood?" Can't wait to try this one out on the kid next door)! Thanks for bringing a smile to my face today.

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