What Are Skin Tags on Dogs?

An alderly jack russell lying on a rug
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Just like humans, dogs can get skin tags on various parts of the body. The good news is that most skin tags are nothing to worry about. However, some can grow large and become a problem. As a dog owner, it's important to understand what a skin tag is and how to tell the difference between skin tags and other types of growths.

What Is a Dog Skin Tag?

A skin tag is a fleshy skin growth that can appear anywhere on a dog's body. Most skin tags are composed of collagen and blood vessels covered with skin. They often appear as soft, slightly raised, skin-colored bumps. Some are pedunculated, meaning they dangle from a stalk. Some skin tags start small and grow larger over time while others remain unchanged. They are usually non-painful and benign (non-cancerous). A benign skin tag on a dog is usually only a concern if it's in a location that bothers the dog.

The actual cause of skin tags in dogs is not known, but there are several theories out there. Friction may play a role in the development of skin tags, so you may find them in the skin folds and creases of the body. However, these growths can be found anywhere on the skin.

Is It Really a Skin Tag?

If you think you have found a skin tag on your dog, you should first take a closer look. Other things can look a lot like skin tags at first.

Ticks

You may think you have found a tick on your dog and attempt to pull it out, only to find an unhappy reaction from your dog. Take a closer look before you attempt to remove what looks like a tick. Tugging on a skin tag will be painful to your dog and can cause irritation to the skin tag and the area around it.

Nipples

Remember that all mammals have nipples and dogs are no exception. Even male dogs have small nipples on their abdomens that look quite a bit like skin tags. If you find a bump on your dog's belly or chest, look on the other side for a matching one. Dogs usually have eight to 10 nipples that run along the abdomen on each side. This should not concern you as long as the area looks like the other nipples and none appear irritated.

Warts

Some dogs get benign viral warts called papillomas. These are caused by a generally harmless yet contagious virus. Papillomas may spread from dog to dog but cannot spread to humans or other animals. Most will fade over time but can return periodically in different areas. In dogs, papillomas often occur around the mouth but can be found in other areas.

Skin Tumors

Malignant (cancerous) skin growths can appear in many different forms, some of which can look like skin tags. Never assume that a skin growth is simply a benign skin tag. Monitor the area for changes in shape, size, and color. Any new growth on your dog should be examined by a veterinarian, especially if it begins to bother your dog or is changing in any way.

Treatment of Skin Tags in Dogs

Skin tags are often harmless and do not require medical treatment. However, they can easily become irritated if they rub against a collar, harness, or another part of the body. Some dogs will lick or chew the area where a skin tag is present, leading to irritation.

If you find a growth on your dog that looks like a skin tag, monitor it closely. Make a note of its size, shape, and color. Check the area frequently for changes. If the skin tag does not change and your dog is not exhibiting signs of illness, it can probably wait for your next annual or biannual routine wellness exam (don't forget to bring it up with your vet at this visit). If you notice any changes to the skin tag, contact your veterinarian for advice and to schedule an examination.

During the appointment, your vet will review your dog's history and perform a physical examination. The vet will closely inspect the growth and determine the next step. Your veterinarian may recommend removing skin tags if they are causing problems or have a likelihood of becoming problematic.

Small, non-painful growths can sometimes be removed with local anesthetic (numbing the area and removing the growth while the dog is awake). Your vet can simply remove the growth by snipping or freezing it off. A laser or electrocautery may be used for this process.

Larger growths or growths in sensitive areas will require sedation or general anesthesia for removal. If your dog is having another procedure that requires sedation or anesthesia, your vet may want to take off the skin tags while your dog is under just to get rid of them before they have a chance to grow and cause issues. After surgery, the area may have stitches that need to be removed. Be sure to keep the area clean and dry while it heals. Contact your vet if it looks irritated or is oozing.

Once removed, the mass may be sent to a veterinary pathologist to analyze the cells it contains. Histopathology can determine if the mass is benign or malignant. It can also reveal if the growth is viral or bacterial.

Do not attempt to remove a skin tag from your dog yourself. You may be comfortable removing your own skin tags at home, but trying to do this to your dog is a bad idea. Your dog will be in pain and may bite in self-defense. You may not be able to remove the whole thing and find that you have more trouble than you started with. Additionally, the area can become irritated or even infected.