For any dog owner, finding a growth or swelling on your pet can be alarming. This is certainly true if your large-breed dog develops a swelling on his elbow that continues to grow and feels firmer over time. In this instance, while a vet visit is warranted to assess the swelling and determine whether it is something cosmetic or something more serious, this new swelling may be a non-cancerous growth called an elbow hygroma.
What Is a Hygroma?
A hygroma is a soft, fluid-filled swelling caused by repeated minor trauma to a dog's body, usually found on bony parts of the body like joints and pressure points. Similar in appearance to a small bubble underneath the skin, hygromas develop when dogs sit or lay on hard surfaces over long periods of time.
Elbow hygromas can be treated by your dog's veterinarian, and often may go away with a few simple changes to their bedding to prevent pressure points from becoming further irritated.
What Is an Elbow Hygroma?
An elbow hygroma is a fluid-filled swelling that occurs over the elbow joint. It is more commonly seen in short-haired, large breed dogs such as Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, mastiffs, and Great Danes. It starts as a small, soft, and moveable mass, but over time it can get quite large and feel hard. Elbow hygromas are non-painful and can occur over any bony prominence or pressure point, including the 'sit bones' of the hip and/or hock joint, but they are most often seen over the elbow.
Signs of Elbow Hygromas in Dogs
Hygromas start out as a small, soft lump on a dog's elbow that can grow to about two inches in diameter. Your dog will likely not show any signs of illness or discomfort unless the hygroma becomes infected.
Causes of Elbow Hygromas
Elbow hygromas occur when large and giant breed dogs frequently lay on hard surfaces, such as hardwood floors, tile, or concrete which repeatedly causes minor trauma to the thin skin over a bony prominence. An inflammatory response in the tissue under the skin over the elbow joint can occur and the body tries to protect the area by encapsulating it with fluid to cushion the joint. Over time, with repeated trauma, this fluid-filled capsule will continue to grow.
While a hygroma, regardless of size, is generally non-painful, if allowed to become large enough to the point of ulceration and abscessing, your dog may experience pain and discomfort.
When caught while still small, simply adding soft, padded bedding (comforters, egg-crate foam mattress toppers, etc.) to your dog's favorite resting spots may be the only thing that needs to be done. If a hygroma is small enough, adding padding to relieve pressure may not only stop the progression of the hygroma, but it may also allow for the regression of it. Cold-laser therapy can also help bring down the inflammation. There are also braces and elbow pads, some custom-made, that can help prevent the progression and abscessation of hygromas. Ask your vet if you think your dog could benefit from a brace and what their recommendation would be.
If your dog's hygroma grows to a size that is not manageable through more conservative treatment methods, draining the fluid off and/or surgical removal of the hygroma may be the best option. It should be noted, though, that draining and removal do not guarantee that the hygroma won't recur. Steps to increase padded and cushioned resting areas must be taken to ensure that another hygroma won't pop up in an area where one was just removed. Given that hygromas form on pressure points, if your dog's hygroma is surgically removed, adding cushioning and padding to their resting areas will also help to prevent any complications during recovery, such as infections and opening of the incision.
If small and uncomplicated by secondary infections, hygromas can be easily treated. As a hygroma gets larger, however, the risks of complications while treating can increase. Catching a hygroma early, before it becomes complicated and requires more invasive treatments like draining and surgery, can be key in an easy recovery. If you notice a growth on your dog, no matter how small, scheduling an appointment with your vet could make the difference in a simple change in your pet's routine versus an invasive surgery with the potential for a long recovery period.
Guide to Congenital and Heritable Disorders in Dogs. Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.
Hygroma in Dogs. Merck Manual Veterinary Manual.
Hygroma in Dogs. Merck Manual Veterinary Manual