Normal Abnormalities in Dogs: Typical Changes Caused by Age or Stress

Dog in grass

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” in dogs.

Lenticular sclerosis in dogs
This is an age-related change that occurs within the lenses of the eyes. 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 change are often 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 in dogs
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's 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 growths resulting in bleeding or infection, and the need for removal. 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 in dogs
These benign fatty tumors develop under the skin in mature dogs. 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 who 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 the deeper tissues. If your veterinarian feels that your dog’s lipoma falls into this category, surgical removal will be recommended.

Stress induced changes in dogs
No one likes going to the doctor, and our dogs are no exception. 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 !  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 even an elevation in blood sugar. Your veterinarian will have various tricks up her sleeve to determine whether such changes represent “normal abnormalities” or are indicators of underlying disease.

Should “normal abnormalities” be ignored? Not at all. They should ideally be noted in your pet’s medical record. Additionally, “watchful waiting” may 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 and your veterinarian can find, a “normal abnormality” is the very best kind!

Questions to ask your veterinarian

  • Is “watchful waiting” a reasonable option for this “normal abnormality?”
  • When should the abnormality be rechecked?
  • What should I be watching for at home?

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

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