Puppy Abscesses: Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Bulldog puppy panting in man's arms

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An abscess results from the body's attempt to wall off infection. The fight against infection results in an accumulation of white blood cells and other blood components commonly called pus. This liquid collects in a fleshy pocket beneath the skin, which swells and becomes very painful. The swelling is called an abscess.

Causes of Abscesses

Almost anything, like a bite wound, splinter, or even an insect sting, can result in an abscess if the surface of the skin is penetrated. When the skin surface heals over the wound, bacteria becomes sealed inside, the body’s immune system is activated, and a pocket of infection may form.

More rarely, a “sterile abscess” can develop without any visible break in the skin. For instance, a bruise that causes tissue swelling and inflammation may become infected and develop a pocket of infection.


Signs of an abscess include a soft swelling and/or draining of green to yellow or even bloody pus from the site. Abscesses also usually are painful and very tender and feel hot to the touch. The puppy usually develops a fever, acts lethargic, suffers a loss of appetite and acts reluctant to move the affected area or have it touched.

Bite wounds that plant infectious organisms deep into the tissue are prime causes of abscesses; they commonly are found in the head and neck region but may appear anywhere on the body. Puppies can develop abscesses from being bitten or scratched by a miffed cat.

Abscesses can also result from chewing an inappropriate object which splinters, in which case the abscess may develop on the tongue, gums or cheek. Dogs also can suffer from abscessed teeth especially if chewing breaks a tooth. An abscessed tooth may cause drooling or refusal to eat. Head and neck abscesses typically cause one side of the neck to swell. Dogs also commonly suffer from anal gland abscesses, in which the area surround the rectum becomes red, swollen and tender. Once the abscess bursts, you may notice smelly wet fur where infection drains.


The diagnosis of an abscess is generally made from the signs. Other times, the veterinarian may insert a needle into the swelling, and draw off material to see if an infection is present.

If your puppy has a heavy coat, the injury may be hidden from view and the problem not noticed until the dog is in pain and flinches from your touch, or the abscess begins to drain. As the injury swells with pus, the skin stretches and becomes thin until it ultimately ruptures. The smelly fluid is white-to-greenish with tinges of blood and may soak the surrounding fur.

Abscesses should be treated as soon as they're noticed to prevent further damage to the surrounding area. The infection can spread until the nearby tissue dies, muscle or nerves are damaged, and/or the resulting massive wound is difficult to heal.

Treatment at the Vet

In most cases, the abscess is so painful your puppy must be anesthetized before the veterinarian can treat him. The fur around the swelling is clipped, and the area disinfected with a surgical scrub solution like betadine. Then the wound is lanced, the infection drained, and the abscess is flushed with a solution to clean out the inside of the pocket of infection. Antibiotic medications are often prescribed as well that you’ll need to pill your puppy at home for a week or longer.

When the abscess is very deep or intrusive, a drain or “wick” may be surgically stitched into place to keep the area draining as the surface skin heals, and prevent the abscess from recurring. When the surgical site is within reach of the puppy’s teeth, an Elizabethan collar prevents him from bothering the healing wound.

Home Treatment

If you notice swelling and suspect an abscess, your veterinarian may recommend warm wet compresses to help the sore come to a head. If your puppy allows you to do this, do this several times a day for five minutes on, five minutes off, until it cools.

Should the abscess rupture on its own, and your puppy will allow you, flushing the area with lukewarm water using the sprayer sink attachment helps keep it clean and speeds healing. Do this once or twice a day until it heals. Drainage makes the fur wet and smelly, and the hair can hold the bacteria in place and slow healing. Clip long fur away from the area. Your veterinarian will still need to evaluate the sore and possibly prescribe medication to fight further infection.

Prevent abscesses by reducing your pup's chances of injury. Neutering or spaying will greatly diminish aggression and subsequent bite wounds. Supervise chew objects, and make sure only safe alternatives are offered. Good dental hygiene and routine care of anal glands will help reduce the chance of abscesses in these areas.