Normal Abnormalities

A “normal abnormality” is the term I use to describe something that is worthy of note within my patient’s medical record, yet is an anticipated abnormality (given the animal’s age, breed, or circumstances) that is highly unlikely to ever become a significant health issue.  I liken such abnormalities to the brown “liver spots” many people develop on their skin in response to sun exposure and aging.  Here are some examples of commonly encountered “normal abnormalities”:

Lenticular sclerosis:  This is an age-related change that occurs within the lenses of the eyes (dogs and cats). The pupil of the eye is normally black because the lens which is located just behind the pupil is crystal clear.  With age comes some rearrangement of lens fibers resulting in a grayish/whitish rather than normal black appearing pupil. This change is referred to as lenticular sclerosis.  People who notice this are usually concerned that their pet is developing cataracts. Whereas cataracts are opaque and interfere with light transmission to the retina, lenticular sclerosis causes no functional visual impairment. How can you know if your pet’s graying pupils represent cataracts or lenticular sclerosis?  Ask your veterinarian to have a look.

Sebaceous adenomas:  These small, warty appearing skin growths commonly develop in older dogs.  Sebaceous adenomas result from blockage of ducts that normally carry sebum to the skin surface. Smaller dogs are particularly prone- Miniature and Toy Poodles reign supreme when it comes to this age-related change.  Sebaceous adenomas are completely benign and rarely need to be removed unless they are growing or changing significantly (some dogs bite or scratch at these skin growth resulting in bleeding or infection). Removal of sebaceous adenomas may also be warranted if they manage to get in the way of grooming clippers.  Always point out any new lumps or bumps to your veterinarian including those you suspect are sebaceous adenomas.

Lipomas:  These benign fatty tumors develop under the skin in mature dogs (rare in kitties).  They can occur anywhere, but their favorite places to grow are the armpit, the inguinal region (the crease between the upper thigh and the belly wall), and along the body wall.  They are completely benign and need to be removed only if they are growing rapidly or, because of their location, have the potential to impede normal limb motion.  How can you know if a lump you’ve just discovered is a lipoma?  Schedule a visit with your veterinarian.  She will collect some cells using a small needle for evaluation under the microscope. If all that is present are fat cells, the diagnosis is a lipoma.  Every once in awhile these tumors become infiltrative sending tendrils of growth down into deeper tissues.  If your vet feels that your dog’s lipoma falls into this category, surgical removal will be recommended.

Stress induced changes:  No one likes going to the doctor, and our pets are no exception.  Squeezing your kitty into a cat carrier, the car ride, a lively waiting room scene, having a thermometer inserted you know where, the sights, the smells- all of these things can cause stress for your dog or cat!  And when the body is stressed, the body compensates by producing a number of normal physiologic changes such as increases in heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and blood sugar measurement.  Your veterinarian will have various tricks up her sleeve to determine whether such changes represent “normal abnormalities” or are indicators of underlying disease.

Should such “normal abnormalities” be ignored?  Not at all.  They should be noted in your pet’s medical record.  Additionally, “watchful waiting” will be recommended because every once in awhile, these abnormalities can morph into something that is deserving of more attention.  For example, a sebaceous adenoma can become infected, a dog with lenticular sclerosis can develop cataracts, and a growing armpit lipoma can begin to hinder normal motion of the front leg. While you are doing your “watchful waiting” count your blessings because, of all the abnormalities you or your veterinarian can find, a “normal abnormality” is the very best kind!

Does your dog or cat have a “normal abnormality”?  Do tell.

Best wishes for good health, 

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of  Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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9 Responses to “Normal Abnormalities”

  1. MMCTAQ Says:

    How about a “Most Amusing Normal Abnormality” contest?

    I had a fifty pound mixed hound who was prone to lipomas. Most of the elder dogs I have had have developed lipomas… I have them aspirated to make sure, and don’t worry about them. But… this hound? His got big. And bigger! It was on his abdomen and it got soooo big that it repositioned his penis. My poor dog would hike his leg to pee, and urine would stream straight up into the air and rain back down on him! The decision was made that this thing had to go, and I dropped him off for surgery in the morning. I waited and waited for the call to come pick him up, and finally I called the clinic. It turned out that his surgery had been delayed several hours due to the staff wanting just one more opportunity to take him outside… “Hey! You wanna see something hysterical? Come outside and watch this dog pee!” The lipoma pretty much removed itself, from what I was told… one incision, and it fell right out. As I recall, it weighed somewhere around four pounds. We were all, humans and dog, glad to have it gone.

  2. Muriel Nally Says:

    My 11yo golden retriever, has several fatty lipomas. My vet said they tend to come in sixes like coasters!

  3. Jana Rade Says:

    Our late rescue had a lipoma on his chest the size of a watermelon! I kid you not! And nobody noticed except me, even though I kept telling them that his chest looked weird.

    Not until he lost some weight (he was quite obese when he came to us) and the lipoma dislodged somehow and moved to the side. It happened at the farm and hubby freaked out that Bruin developed a huge tumor over night.

    Rushed him to the vet there, and it was confirmed that it indeed was a lipoma.

  4. Dr. Tony Johnson Says:

    Dr. Kay –

    Thanks for another well-written and valuable piece!

    I especially like the section on stress-induced changes, as we see these sorts of things in the ER all the time and have to differentiate these expected variants from actual disease. I think it is helpful for people to know that not every departure from ‘normal’ means that a disease is afoot, and as long as we are watching carefully, it is OK to give things some time to see if they resolve or, as you mention, evolve into something more serious.

  5. Robyn M Fritz Says:

    Yes, my almost 13-year-old Cavalier has both the eye condition, a few warts, and lipomas. We keep track of them, but they are for her normal aspects of getting older. Thanks for describing the eye condition. Many people stop me on the street and remark on Murphy’s eye condition, thinking it’s something I need to see the vet for right away. Intriguing that many more notice, smile, and pet Murphy gently, congratulating her on being so fit and happy AND an older girl! So thanks to great vets like you many people know what they see and understand it. My 9-year-old Cavalier has some warts.

  6. Jane Eagle Says:

    Those “warty growths” should be watched carefully and checked out by a vet. I had a dog with fatty lipomas all over; but the warty thing was new. Ran to the vet, where we discovered that it was a mast cell tumor, and very dangerous.
    My vet loves me because, among other reasons, my motto is WHEN IN DOUBT, GO TO THE VET!

  7. Deborah Crippen Says:

    Thanks so much for reminding everyone that a fatty tumour must be checked with a sample under the scope to call it a lipoma. We can not feel these lumps and tell what they are. Unfortunately many serious masses/tumours are ignored because they are called lipomas. Keep up the good information.

  8. Barbara Baer Says:

    Always excellent information that elicits good practical responses, as from the ER doc. I’d like to read something about canine diabetes (unless it’s already been on “Spot” and I missed it) which took us totally by surprise with our 11 yr-old lab. He had what appeared to be a seizure and then, we thought, was dying. At the ER they had the intelligence to test his sugars and he’d had a diabetic onset. He lived at least two more years quite well. I know this isn’t ‘normal’ but it’s certainly treatable.

  9. Amy Says:

    My cocker spaniel had a lipoma that weighed 24 ounces on her upper chest. When the vet went in to remove it she found that the thing was growing onto her jugular vein. As soon as they lifted it off (they had to scrape it off of the vein!) the tech reported that all the vital signs instantly improved.

    The vet was so impressed with the mass of this thing that she saved it until I got there so I could see it. I didn’t really want to see it but she was so excited to show it to me I couldn’t say \no.\ It was indeed an impressive mound of ickiness with some well developed veins of its own.

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