Abscess in Dogs

Bulldog puppy panting in man's arms

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Dogs can develop abscesses from a wound, inappropriate chewing, or on their anal glands. If you notice a soft swelling, pus, or an area that is painful when touched, it's time to call the vet. Though there are home treatments that can reduce your pup's pain, if left untreated, the infection can severely damage your dog's health.

How Do Dogs Get Abscesses?

An abscess results from the body's attempt to wall off an 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.

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 become 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.

The signs include a soft swelling, often along with draining of green to yellow or even bloody pus from the infected site. They are usually are painful, very tender, and feel hot to the touch. It's common for dogs to also develop a fever, act lethargic, lose its appetite, or become reluctant to move or have the area touched.

Wounds

Bite wounds that plant infectious organisms deep into the tissue are the prime cause of abscesses for dogs. Dogs can also develop abscesses from being bitten or scratched by a miffed cat. These are commonly found in the head and neck region but may appear anywhere on the body. Head and neck abscesses typically cause one side of the neck to swell.

Chewing

Abscesses can also result from chewing an inappropriate object which splinters. In these cases, 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 your dog may refuse to eat.

Anal Glands

Dogs also commonly suffer from anal gland abscesses, in which the area around the rectum becomes red, swollen and tender. Once the abscess bursts, you may notice smelly wet fur where the infection drains.

Diagnostic Processes

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 dog has a heavy coat, the injury may be hidden from view. You might not notice the problem until your 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

In most cases, the abscess is so painful your dog 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 infected pocket.

When the abscess is very deep or intrusive, a drain or “wick” may be surgically stitched in place to keep the area draining as the surface skin heals. This can help prevent the abscess from recurring.

  • Antibiotic medications are often prescribed as well. Generally, you will need to pill your dog at home for a week or longer.
  • When the surgical site is within reach of the dog's teeth, an Elizabethan collar (e-collar) will prevent it from bothering the wound while it heals.

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 dog allows you to do this, do it several times a day for five minutes on, five minutes off, until the compress cools.

Should the abscess rupture on its own, and your dog will allow it, you may be able to flush the area. Using your sink's sprayer attachment with lukewarm water can help keep it clean and speed 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. You will need to clip long fur away from the infected area. Your veterinarian will still need to evaluate the sore and possibly prescribe medication to fight further infection.

How to Prevent Abscesses

Prevent abscesses by reducing your dog's chances of injury. Neutering or spaying will greatly diminish aggression and subsequent bite wounds. Also, be sure to 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 as well.