How to treat dog abscess - with pictures and video

Abscess in dogs can often be treated at home. In more severe cases treatment can involve a veterinarian. As the abscess is the result of a severe infection, it is recommended to have a professional evaluate the course of action, either over the phone or by way of a physical examination.

Treatment often includes sterilising, rinsing and draining the wound. It may also be followed up by a course of antibiotics. Depending on the severity the wound left after draining may take quite a long time to heal.

What is abscess?

An abscess is a severe form of infection that can occur anywhere on a dog’s body but most commonly appears on the surface of the skin or in the gum below a tooth. In severe cases, they can even form in a dog’s abdomen on one of its internal organs.

Just like humans, when a dog receives an injury, his immune system reacts by sending white blood cells to the area. In the process of fighting the bacteria in the wound, the white blood cells will die and accumulate alongside the dead bacteria to form a liquid referred to as pus. When pus accumulates in a large pocket around the wound, it becomes an abscess.

Abscess near the eye
Abscess near the eye

Abscesses can form from anything that breaks the skin, like a bite wound, scratch, wood splinter, or bug bite. Even a dog chewing his paws too severely can lead to an infection. Since everyday cuts and scrapes can cause abscesses, it’s important to know the signs of an abscess and how to treat them before they worsen.

Where do they form?

Abscesses can vary based on where they’re located on your dog and what kind of bacteria is causing the infection.

Surface infections can form on the skin, between the toes, and on the dog’s legs. Less common, but more dangerous surface-level infections can occur near the eyes, genitals, anus, or inside the ears. Since these are close to orifices that lead into the dog’s body, it’s critical that a vet treats these infections.

Abscesses can also form on a dog’s internal organs, like the liver, pancreas, or prostates of intact male dogs.

The most common bacterial culprit found in abscessed wounds are Pasteurella multocida, but they can also be caused by Staphylococcus intermedius. Both are treated using antibiotic ointment or antibiotics prescribed by a vet.

What causes it?

Abscesses are caused when malicious bacteria enters an open wound and multiplies, forming a painful mass filled with pus.

Puncture wounds are a common cause of abscesses because they can push bacteria deep into the skin, making it extremely difficult to sterilize the wound even after cleaning it.

If your dog was bitten by another dog or a cat, thoroughly clean out the wound as best as you can and keep an eye on it as it heals. Watch for any signs of infection.

Another common cause of abscesses in dogs are splinters from bits of wood or barbed grass seeds like cheatgrass and foxtail. You will usually see this type of wound on a dog’s paws, but you may also see them on the dog’s snout, face, and legs. An embedded splinter or barb, if not removed and the wound cleaned, can lead to an abscess.

Symptoms

Symptoms are the outward signs that something is going wrong in your dog’s body. Recognizing the signs, especially early on, means you can identify the issue and take the proper course of action asap.

Here are a few symptoms indicating that your dog may have an abscess:

  • Noticeable lump, mass, or bump below your dog’s skin, often reddish or pink in color
  • Bump may feel warm to the touch as well as soft, swollen, squishy, or jelly-like
  • Bleeding, oozing, or pus draining from the site
  • Signs of pain including licking or chewing at the site
  • Fever
  • Lethargy, fatigue, or lack of appetite
  • Wound does not show signs of healing after several days
  • Infected wound or suspected abscess is near a sensitive part of your dog’s body like the eyes, ears, or anus
  • Excessive licking of the affected area
  • Hair loss surrounding the wound
  • Foul smell
  • Lack of appetite

Diagnosis

Your vet can diagnose an abscess by performing a swab test and a blood test.

A swab of the infection can tell the vet if harmful bacteria are present in the wound.

The blood test is used to gauge the severity of the infection; if bacteria is detected in the blood test, that means it has spread into the dog’s bloodstream, which is more severe than an infection localized to the wound.

The results of the tests will determine which course of treatment you should take to nurse your pet back to health.

Treatment

Depending on the severity of the infection, you may be able to treat it at home or your dog may require prompt vet care.

Since abscesses are already a more severe form of infection, you should first take your dog in to have the wound evaluated by a vet and then discuss which treatment options they recommend.

Oftentimes a vet will recommend having the wound drained of pus and flushed out to clean the wound of bacteria.

This treatment will likely go hand-in-hand with a course of antibiotics to prevent the bacteria from coming back and spreading throughout your dog’s body. If this is the case, be sure to complete the full course of antibiotics; if you don’t risk, you run the risk of the bacteria returning with a vengeance.

At home

Once your veterinarian has recommended home treatment, he may advice some of the following.

Before you begin Prepare a towel soaked in warm water and sterilize your hands with alcohol.

You may want to cut the hair around the abscess, as it can pus may leak onto it. This may not only leave a foul odor, it may also cause the wound to heal more slowly due to increased levels of bacteria near the affected area.

Draining Apply a towel soaked in warm water to the wound. This will help draw the pus to the surface.

Some may not wish to forcefully drain an abscess. In this case leave the on the wound for 5 minutes. When it is cooled. Soak, it once again, in warm water and reapply. Repeat this action several times a day until it erupts naturally.

If preferred, it is possible to provoke an eruption by gently pressing and squeeze the abscess. Squeeze in such a way as to push the pus towards the center of the wound.

Continue squeezing gently until pus begins to ooze out of the wound. Drain it until the pus stops flowing out of the wound.

Cleaning the wound Once drained, clean the wound using a sterile saline solution. A syringe may be helpful for cleaning the inside.

When it is clean, apply a topical ointment. It may contain an antibiotic. Your veterinarian will be able to make a recommendation.

Rinse and repeat The process of draining and cleaning the wound may be repeated twice a day for the first few days. Decreasing the frequency as the wound starts to heal.

It may several weeks for the wound to completely heal.

At the veterinarian

The veterinarian usually start out by assessing your dog and the wound.

  • If necessary, anesthesia may be given.
  • Typically any hair around the the abscess is removed.
  • It is then disinfected with surgical scrub.
  • A small incision, also called lancing, is made in the center of the wound.
  • The pus is then drained by lightly squeezing the found.
  • The abscess is flushed to clean the inside.

In case of intrusive abscess a drain be attached to continue draining as the wound is healing.

Antibiotics is often prescribed and you may be recommended to use an e-collar to keep your dog from disturbing the affected area during the healing time.

Natural remedies

If you’re a fan of natural remedies, you can try your hand at curing your dog’s abscess with essential oils.

Homeopathic treatments that can be used to treat abscesses and skin boils on both humans and canines include belladonna, sulfur, and lachesis.

As with other treatment options, monitor your dog’s wound closely for signs that it is beginning to heal or worsening.

If it worsens, take your dog to the vet immediately for medicinal intervention.

Complications

With the proper treatment, dogs can fully recover from an abscess and be back on their paws in a matter of weeks. However, it is possible for complications to arise, which can be severe or even deadly.

While complications are relatively rare, it’s best to be educated as a pet owner on how to recognize possible complications so you can take immediate action.

Fistula

One is called a fistula. When an abscess continues draining pus and does not heal, it has developed into what vets call a fistula.

The most common reason fistulas form when a foreign object, like a splinter, is still embedded in the wound. In this case, the object needs to be removed before the wound begins to heal properly.

Draining in the wrong direction

Another possible complication is when the wound drains in the wrong direction.

Ideally, when an abscess drains, it will open and trickle out of the body. In rare cases, the infection instead drains into the dog’s abdomen.

This is an emergency and cannot be treated at home!

Prevention

Pay close attention to your dog when he’s playing with other dogs, outside on a walk, or frolicking in the backyard. If your dog sometimes plays or goes outside while unsupervised, do a visual check of your dog when it comes back inside.

Inspect

If you suspect your dog suffered an injury, call him back right away so you can properly clean the wound as soon as possible.

It can be challenging to spot a wound on a dog, especially a small nick or scrape because their fur often conceals the wound from sight.

Do a thorough inspection of the area, especially if your dog has a long, thick coat. Even the smallest of cuts can become infected and lead to a painful abscess.

Clean

If your dog has an injury, clean and remove any debris from the wound and then apply an over-the-counter anti-bacterial cream.

Pet stores sell ointments specifically made for pets, so it would be good to add that to your first aid kit, so you’re prepared for an emergency when it occurs.

Keep an eye out

Keep an eye on the injury over the next couple of days. If an abscess is going to form, it will most likely happen within two to five days after the dog was initially injured.

How long does it take to heal?

Abscesses can take days, weeks, or even months to heal fully.

They are slow healing wounds, but as long as you see incremental improvements, you can feel rest assured that you and your dog are on the right track.

Signs that the wound is healing include lessening discharge, the bump shrinking in size, and the skin returning to a normal shade of healthy pink as opposed to an irritated shade of red.

On the other hand, if the wound appears to be worsening or your dog shows signs of severe infection like fever, lethargy, or loss of appetite, consult with your vet immediately.

Can it heal on its own?

In less severe cases that are properly cleaned and treated, abscesses can be taken care of without veterinary intervention.

In some cases the dog’s body can manage the bacterial infection on its own. In such a case the dog’s body will slowly absorb the contained pus, thus healing the wound without the need of intervention.

What if it bursts?

At some point, the abscess will likely burst to allow the infection to begin draining from the wound.

During this time, it’s important to keep the site clean and dry to prevent it from worsening.

Washing the wound out with sterile saline can help clear out the infection. You can also apply warm compresses to facilitate drainage.

During the healing process, keep your dog from licking, scratching, or biting at the wound. Dogs can be persistent about this, so you may need to use a cone for a couple of days until the wound has a chance to close and begin healing.

Abscess on the face, near eyes, or inside the ears

Abscesses on your dog’s face or within his ears can be especially dangerous since they can easily spread to your dog’s eyes, inner ears, sinuses, or brain.

If you suspect your dog has an abscess in any of these locations, consult with a vet immediately to have them treated with antibiotics before they have a chance to spread and cause potentially permanent damage.

Abscess between toes

An abscess between the toes is called an interdigital furuncle.

Paws are a common sight for infections because dogs are constantly barefoot, meaning cuts, splinters, and abrasions to their feet can easily occur.

Sometimes even ingrown hair follicles can cause an abscess to form.

Certain dog breeds like Labs and English Bulldogs are especially prone to this condition.

Early signs of abscess between the toes are excessive licking and chewing of the paws, in addition to reddened, rash-like bumps on the webbing between the dog’s toes.

To treat them, a vet may opt to lance the abscess to remove any foreign material and then prescribe antibiotics or a topical ointment to apply until the wound heals.

Is it common?

While there aren’t any statistics on how often abscesses occur in dogs, they can be sustained by fairly routine injuries like cuts, scrapes, and splinters.

Puncture wounds and bites from other animals like dogs, cats, or wild animals are also common vectors for causing an abscess.

Common but unhealthy dog behaviors like compulsively chewing their paws or licking at an injury site can also lead to an abscess as the wound becomes agitated and filled with harmful bacteria.

Can my dog die from this?

Although extremely rare, an abscess can kill a dog.

Abscesses can turn lethal if the bacteria from the wound spread into the bloodstream or drains into the dog’s abdominal cavity.

If your dog shows signs of sepsis or severe systemic infection including fever, listlessness, loss of appetite, or severe pain, seek veterinary treatment immediately.

The sooner your dog begins a course of antibiotics, the better his chances are of making a full recovery.

Is it harmful?

Like any infection, abscesses have the potential to be harmful to your dog.

While less severe abscesses may clear up on their own with proper cleaning and antibiotic ointment, untreated abscesses, or abscesses near a sensitive part of your dog’s body like her eyes, ears, or anus, can quickly spread and cause permanent damage or even death to your dog.

Abscess near anal glands. Joel Mills [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons
Abscess near anal glands. Joel Mills [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

To be on the safe side, it’s best to have any abscess examined by a vet. If the infection is not severe, you may be able to treat it at home with warm compresses, over-the-counter ointments, or essential oils, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry when your pet’s health is at stake.

Is it contagious?

No, abscesses are not contagious. It’s like a severe form of an infected cut, meaning it’s only dangerous to the infected dog.

Other abscess like conditions

Typically this type of infected wound is referred to as an abscess, but there are different types of abscesses, including fistulas and interdigital furuncles which occur in the webbing between a dog’s toes.

Lumps and bumps that may be confused with abscess

Abscess is not the only lump you can find on your dog. Here are some other lumps that, at first glance, may look like it.

Cysts

Specifically sebaceous cysts are very similar to abscess. These are, however, not caused by bacterial infections.

Rather they are caused by keratin producing cells moving deeper into the skin, instead of towards the skin surface.

It is possible for a cyst to develop into a boil.

Boils

Skin boils, like abscess, are caused by a bacterial infection.

These are very similar to abscess. As such the two are easily confused.

A boil is normally about 2 cm in diameter. In contrast abscess, typically has a similar size, but can potentially grow much much larger.

Blisters or vesicles

An elevation that may pop up on the outer skin layers. It contains serum - a transparent, water-like, fluid.

Pustules

These look similar to blisters, but are filled with pus.

Pyoderma

This is a skin infection caused by bacteria.

It is often recognized by the presence of raised papule or pustules on the dog’s skin. They are often quite itchy.

Sources

Treat a dog abscess at home

Abscess in dogs

Abscesses in dogs - Causes and symptoms

Abscesses between the toes - Interdigital Furunculosis in dogs

Homeopathy abscess

Abscesses in dogs and cats

Abscess signs and treatment

First aid: Abscess

Causes of skin boils in dogs

What to do if your dog won’t eat?

What to do when your dog is bleeding?