For any dog owner, finding a growth on your pet can be alarming. This is certainly true if your large-breed dog develops a growth on their elbow that continues to grow and feels firmer over time. In this instance, while a vet visit is warranted to assess the growth and determine whether it is something cosmetic or something more serious, this new growth is likely a type non-cancerous growth called an elbow hygroma.
What Is an Elbow Hygroma?
An elbow hygroma is a fluid-filled growth 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 ('ankle') joint, but it is most often seen over the elbow.
Signs of Elbow Hygromas in Dogs
Elbow hygromas look like a soft swelling filled with fluid (usually yellow to red in color) over a bony part or pressure point on a dog's body. They can grow to about two inches in diameter. Your dog will likely not show any signs of illness or discomfort. When infected, a hygroma may be painful and warm to the touch.
Causes of Elbow Hygromas
Elbow hygromas arise when large and giant breed dogs repeatedly and frequently lay on hard surfaces, such as hardwood, tile, or concrete. 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 from the dog simply resting on his/her elbows, this fluid-filled capsule will continue to grow. This is because as the body's inflammatory response works to cushion the area itself, it can actually add even more pressure to the area, which causes the body to up its inflammatory response, which brings more fluid to the area.
It is an unfortunate catch-22 that the body's built in safe guard can actually cause the condition to worsen. While a hygroma, regardless of size, is 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, it may allow for the regression of it as well. Cold-laser therapy can also help bring down the inflammation. There are also braces and elbow pads, some custom-made, through companies like Dog Leggs, Balto Orthopedic Braces for Pets, and Ortho Pets that can help prevent the progression and abscessation of hygromas. Ask your vet if you think you 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 for him/her. 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.
While small and uncomplicated by secondary infections, hygromas can be very easily treated and reduced. As it gets larger, though, the risks of complications while treating can go up. Catching a hygroma early, before it can become complicated and require 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 or inconsequential it may seem to you, 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.