Lumps and bumps and growths—oh, my! While skin tags on dogs generally aren’t a cause for concern, you’ll need a veterinarian’s help to determine whether what you’ve found is harmless or cancerous.

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You're rubbing and scratching your good boy when your fingers catch on something … different—a bump you're pretty sure wasn't there before. You've probably heard of people getting skin tags, but did you know that dogs can get these generally harmless growths, too? While skin tags are one possibility, they unfortunately aren't the only cause of lumps and bumps on dogs and you'll need a veterinarian's help to get a definitive diagnosis. Learn more about what skin tags are, what they look like, and how to determine whether your dog's skin growth needs professional attention.

What Are Skin Tags?

Skin tags, which are also called fibrovascular polyps, fibrovascular papillomas, acrochordons and soft fibromas, are a type of benign (i.e. noncancerous) skin growth, says Theresa Entriken, DVM, a veterinary consultant based in Leawood, Kan. "They're small (usually 1 centimeter or less in length), soft, flesh-colored growths on the skin or that extend from a small stalk," she continues. "One or more of these growths usually occur on the lower chest and upper legs in dogs, especially in middle-age and senior dogs, and sometimes on the face." 

According to Entriken, any breed (or mixed breed, for that matter) can develop skin tags, but large and giant breed dogs tend to be the ones most often affected.

Why Do Dogs Get Skin Tags?

While the exact cause remains unknown, Entriken explains that because of their location (e.g. lower chest, upper legs, face), they are thought to be associated with persistent irritation or pressure. However, there's no need to cut down on chest and belly rubs as a precaution. Entriken says that skin tags also commonly occur in people and as with dogs, the cause isn't yet known. Friction, obesity, or heredity may play a role, she notes.

How to Treat a Dog’s Skin Tag

If you find a growth on your dog's skin, you may be able to use some of the descriptors from above (e.g. soft, flesh-colored, 1 centimeter or less in length) to form a hunch about it being a skin tag, but you'll need a veterinarian's help to know for certain. "You can't tell by looking whether a lump or bump is benign and harmless or cancer and serious," Entriken explains. "True skin tags aren't as common in dogs as they are in people, so a small growth on a pet is often casually and incorrectly referred to as a skin tag."

Entriken offers this simple guide for knowing if a lump or bump on your pup needs the attention of a veterinarian: "If a lump or bump on your dog is the size of a pea or larger and has been present for a month or longer, a veterinarian needs to evaluate it. And anytime a growth gets bigger, or is inflamed or bleeding or oozing, your veterinarian needs to evaluate it." 

It's also worth noting that it's absolutely OK to follow your gut and call your veterinarian about a lump or bump that doesn't fit the criteria above—especially if you know you're just going to worry about it for the next 30 days.

Even veterinarians can't be certain whether a skin growth is harmless or cancerous by simply looking at it. Instead, lumps and bumps on pets are evaluated using one of two procedures: aspiration or biopsy.

For the former, Entriken says veterinarians can often use a small needle and syringe to collect cells from the lesion (called a fine-needle aspirate) that are later studied under a microscope. 

Biopsies, on the other hand, involve the surgical removal of a small piece of the lesion (or the entire lesion) along with a small amount of the surrounding normal skin. Whether your pet receives a local anesthetic or is sedated or anesthetized depends on the procedure and the type of lesions, Entriken explains.

"Biopsies (and sometimes aspirates) are sent to a veterinary laboratory for microscopic evaluation by a specialist (called a veterinary pathologist)," Entriken adds. "The pathologist then identifies whether the cells that make up the growth are benign or cancerous and determines whether the cells have spread to the surrounding normal tissue."

Do Skin Tags on Dogs Need to Be Removed?

According to Entriken, your veterinarian can help determine if a skin tag needs to be removed. Because skin tags are noncancerous, it's typically only a cosmetic issue. However, Entriken notes that if your pet is bothered by the skin tag and keeps licking or scratching at it, or if it gets caught on something and tears or is otherwise aggravated, you have multiple options for removing the pesky growth. These include surgical removal with a scalpel or laser, as well as cryotherapy, in which intensely cold liquid nitrogen is used to freeze (i.e. destroy) the skin tag tissue.

Keep the Belly Rubs Coming

The best way to catch both benign and cancerous skin growths on your dog is to regularly check his skin and make note of any changes you might want to share with your veterinarian. It's a true win-win situation. You'll have peace of mind about your dog's health, and your pup will get the positive attention he craves. (We promise he didn't pay us to write this last paragraph.)