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Dog Abscess Guide: Causes, Symptoms, and At-Home Treatments

Abscesses look incredibly painful, and unfortunately, our dogs can't tell us about them until they've grown out of control. Learn more about the canine symptoms and causes of this common skin infection and learn how to treat an abscess on a dog at home. 

What exactly is an abscess?

You may have heard the term abscess used before, as this is a mammalian issue, not exclusively reserved for dogs. Sometimes even humans have abscess under their teeth, skin abscesses, and more. 

An abscess is a collection of fluid or pus caused by a bacterial infection on the skin or internally. 

  • Dogs often develop abscesses after a minor skin irritation or abrasion becomes infected. Usually, skin wounds and other injuries heal on their own.
  • Still, every once in a while, something may go wrong in the healing process - harmful bacteria enter the wound, the dog fusses with it too much, or the dog's immune and regenerative processes weaken.
  • You can find an abscess on dog paw pads, legs, and abdomen. Often, they form in areas where the skin folds or bends - you're more likely to see an abscess on a dog’s neck or "armpit" regions, as the warm, dark area is the perfect place for bacteria to grow. 
  • As the bacterial infection grows, the skin around the abscess tends to get very inflamed, and as many of us know, even a minor wound infection can cause a fair bit of pain.
  • Your doggo's immune system works to fight off the infection, which usually causes a growth under the skin, filled with pus as the body tries to isolate the infection within the pocket.
  • Sometimes the exterior skin wound heals before the tissue under the surface, sealing the bacteria under the skin and causing infection pockets.
  • Occasionally, sterile abscesses form from bruises and other injuries that never broke the surface of the skin at all - instead, these immediately become pockets of infection under the skin. They're sterile in the sense that no exterior bacteria entered the body through broken skin; the abscess, instead, develops due to tissue inflammation and swelling from the injury.
  • Abscesses grow out of control and are seriously harmful, even fatal if left untreated. We'll hop into some of the at-home treatments for a painful canine abscess and address when you need to take your pup for professional veterinarian assessment, treatment, and antibiotics. 

What causes abscesses? 

If you see an abscess on a dog’s leg areas as opposed to. an abscess in a dog’s mouth, it's safe to say that two very different issues caused them. There are all sorts of reasons that an abscess may form on or in your pup's body. 

Dogs take joy in getting themselves into dirty messes as much as possible, but unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to serious trouble down the road. While we don't think you should stop letting your pup enjoy some of the best parts of puppy life, keep an eye and check your doggo's body over regularly for any signs of problems. 

These are the most common ways a dog may develop an abscess:

  • Cuts and scrapes. These commonly occur in a dog's day-to-day life, and when infected, they become an issue.
  • Puncture wounds. Something may puncture your pup's skin; a bite of another animal, or a sharp object, like stepped-on glass. Generally, another animal will bite the neck, head, or tail region. 
  • Excessive rubbing or abrasions. Sometimes dogs get excited about their task at hand and don't take care to avoid skin rubs and burns, which open the skin and make it vulnerable to bacteria. 
  • Chewing sharp objects. Dogs love to chew things apart, and many items tend to splinter into sharp pieces that cut their tongue, cheek, or gums. 
  • Anal gland infection. The design of a dog's anal gland makes abscesses a reasonably common occurrence.
  • Internal abscesses. Sometimes, an internal abscess develops in the teeth, mouth, liver, or brain.
  • Tooth abscesses. A dog tooth abscess can cause infection in broken teeth or as a result of periodontal disease. Can a dog die from a tooth abscess? It's a pretty serious condition and can become life-threatening when not treated promptly.

Signs of Abscesses in Dogs

The signs of any external abscess are pretty obvious and easy to spot, but the problem in a dog's case is their fur coats, which can often cover a wound until it's out of control. 

Examine your pup's body regularly to spot abscesses and problematic wounds early on, especially if they've had a busy day outside getting into all sorts of trouble. 

The common signs of an abscess are:

  • Soft swelling of the skin around the wound
  • Yellow, green, or bloody pus at the infection site
  • Pain, tenderness, or hotness to the touch
  • Fever and lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Reluctance to move or be touched, especially in the wound area
  • Hair loss and other pain symptoms
  • Excessive biting and licking of the area

How To Treat Dog Abscesses: Professional and At-Home Treatment Options

An abscessed wound has already grown out of control and should no longer be left to heal naturally, though the treatments vary depending on the wound's severity and site. If you catch an abscess while it's a mild infection, you can try some at-home wound care to clear up the issue. For an abscessed tooth or severe infection, you'll want to take your doggo to the veterinarian for an exam ASAP. 

At-Home Treatment

Even if your pup's abscess is just in the beginning phases, it's always best to give your vet a quick call to consult about treatment options and their professional opinion on the wound's severity. They'll also likely prescribe some antibiotics.

To treat a pup's wound at home, you'll need to find some clean, old towels, rubbing alcohol, a saline solution, and a sterile wound ointment for dogs. 

Now it's time to dig in, and we warn you, this job can be challenging if you're squeamish. If the abscess isn't leaking, apply a warm, wet compress on the bump until it breaks open. Use another clean towel to catch the pus that comes out until it is no longer flowing. 

Clean the wound with a saline solution, then apply the sterile wound ointment to the area. Leave it uncovered to allow access to the air as it heals. Clean the wound twice per day and be prepared for the long haul - a dog abscess can take quite some time to heal. 

Veterinary Treatment

If at-home treatment is tricky or you'd feel more comfortable having a veterinarian perform the treatment, bring them in ASAP. 

Antibiotic medications are almost always required whether you treat at home or at the vet, as they're the surest way to get rid of a bacterial infection. Just like in humans, it's crucial to give your dog the entire bottle of antibiotics as prescribed, even if they're looking and feeling better. 

If the tooth abscess is severe, it may require surgery to remove it. In the case of a tooth abscess, vets remove the entire tooth, too. 

Generally, a vet performs an exam, additional lab tests for internal spread, blood tests, and an assessment of the bacterial strains present in the infection. 

To remove an abscess surgically, a vet opens the wound and allows the pus and fluid to drain. The spot is thoroughly cleaned and possibly bandaged with wound ointment. 

Healing After Abscess Treatment or Removal

Removing the abscess is only the beginning of the recovery process; you'll still have a dog in pain to care for in the weeks to come at home. 

Check the site of the wound daily to see how it's healing and progressing. You'll also need to clean it daily and give your doggo its prescribed antibiotic medications. 

Pull out the cone of doom if your dog tries to lick the area, which can cause the infection to worsen - they won't be too happy about wearing it, but it's a little short-term pain for long-term gain. 

Keep your dog as comfy as you can while they're at home, with a soft bed, plenty of pillows, and even a dog ramp for bed to prevent jumping and excess trauma to the wound as it heals. You may need to limit your pup's activity for a few weeks and keep an eye on their food and water consumption - they'll need plenty of both to maintain their strength and keep their body healing as it should.

The healing process is two-fold - the antibiotics kill off the bacterial infection while the skin works to regenerate and heal the wound itself. You may see scabbing, which is a good sign! 

Final Notes & Abscess Prevention

Now that the abscess is on its healing journey, let's talk about abscess prevention. 

We can't keep our pups in a bubble to avoid injury, but what we can do is monitor them closely, especially if they're chewing something that may splinter. Keep them separated from aggressive dogs known to bite, and consider spaying or neutering to reduce their aggression and chances of getting into a fight in the first place.

Besides supervising your pup, give them a good look-over once a week to ensure there aren't any tiny, hidden wounds that need cleaning. You can brush them while you check, which most doggos enjoy anyway. 

Good luck with your canine's healing journey!

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