Puppy strangles is a scary term for a condition of the skin more technically described as juvenile cellulitis or sterile granulomatous dermatitis and lymphadenitis. While it’s not a common problem, it most frequently affects puppies younger than 16 weeks old. Puppy strangles is especially problematic in golden retrievers, Gordon setters, and dachshunds.
Puppy strangles is believed to be a result of an overactive immune response, but what triggers this response is still unknown. The skin, especially on the face, becomes infected with deep sores. These sores can become so severe that the inflammation reaches the lymph nodes of the neck. This neck area swells with hard knots under the jaw until it looks like the baby dog will strangle—hence the name.
Puppy strangles is characterized by pustules on the face, and painful swelling of the lips, eyelids, and face. This may also include swellings in the groin area, where the lymph glands are located. Affected neck lymph nodes can rarely become abscessed, break open, and drain.
Signs of puppy strangles can go beyond the facial sores. About a quarter of puppies with this condition can develop a fever or joint swelling, become lethargic, or stop eating, which can lead to low blood sugar that complicates the condition.
While puppy strangles generally isn’t life-threatening, it does need immediate veterinary care. The draining sores on the face must be diagnosed as pyoderma, as opposed to juvenile demodectic mange that looks similar. The steroids commonly used to suppress the immune response in strangles could actually make the demodectic mange worse.
Once your veterinarian has diagnosed the condition, ask for tips on how to help your puppy heal. Some home treatment can relieve the discomfort, too.
Apply a warm compress to the sore face two or three times a day. Rinse a washcloth with warm water, wring out the excess, and hold against the pup’s swollen throat. Moist heat brings blood circulation to the area to help heal the wound more quickly and clean out the infection. Apply moist heat five minutes on, five minutes off, until the cloth has cooled, and then reapply.
The sores that develop on the puppy’s face usually burst and then crust over. That’s quite uncomfortable as well as unsightly, and you can help your puppy feel better by keeping these areas clean. Soak with warm water at least once a day to soften the crusties, and then gently wipe them off and pat the area dry after.
For any lymph nodes that have abscessed, clean the spots three to four times a day with warm water on a cloth applied for five to 10 minutes at a time. As with any abscess, these spots will be very tender, so be gentle. Rough cleaning also could increase the chance that the area will scar.
Cleanliness alone won’t cure puppy strangles. Because an overactive immune response causes the symptoms, a steroid (typically prednisone) is used to suppress the immune system. If a secondary bacterial infection is present, an antibiotic may be used to help clear the infection and allow the wounds to heal.
In most cases, the response to the steroid is dramatic, and the puppy is feeling better within days. The dose of the steroid will be tapered gradually once the lesions have resolved. It is helpful to learn tips on how to administer pills or other treatments to your puppy.