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Abscesses in Dogs

What is an abscess?

An abscess is a pocket of pus often formed just under the skin but can also occur within the body. There are many types of abscesses a dog can suffer.  Abscesses can be small or large, superficial or potentially dangerous.   All abscesses carry a serious health risk if left untreated and so should be examined by a vet as soon as possible.

What are the symptoms of an abscess?

Surface abscesses will appear under the skin as a painful swelling which is either firm or jelly-like to touch. Other symptoms to look out for are:-

  • Inflammation at the site of the lump
  • Heat omitting from the area
  • Licking or chewing the abscess site
  • Hair loss around the site
  • Weeping or bleeding from the site
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Fever

Internal abscesses are much more difficult to detect and treat as your dog may not show any outward signs. A dog with an anal sac abscess may scoot their bottom along the floor.  Symptoms such as coughing and wheezing may indicate the presence of a lung (pulmonary) abscess.

What are the causes of abscesses?

Abscesses form in response to bacteria. Abscesses which form under the skin usually result from an injury such as a scratch, bite or ingrowing hair, which has become infected by the bacteria, Pasteurella multocida or Staphylococcus intermedius. Canine abscesses can also occur at a tooth root following tooth damage, in the ear, sinus, liver (following a blood infection), pancreas, lungs or the brain (following a mouth infection).

What puts a dog at risk of developing an abscess?

Any pet that is more likely to incur an injury is at a greater risk of developing an infection and an abscess.  Outdoor dogs have more of an opportunity to encounter dirty, sharp objects which they can chew on, cutting their mouths. Particularly during the spring and summer months your pet is at risk of swallowing or inhaling grass seeds and plant matter while out walking.  This plant matter can lodge in lung tissue causing an infection.

Dogs who have not been neutered or spade are more likely to get into fights with other dogs and suffer bite wounds.

Certain breeds of dog such as Labradors and English Bulldogs, which have short stiff coat hair, have a greater chance of developing abscesses. Hair can be pushed back into the hair follicle and become infected, causing abscesses between the toes.


Your vet will take a swab of the infected area to determine which strain of bacteria is present.  A blood test will also be done to establish whether the infection is present in the blood. Internal abscesses are far more difficult to diagnose and will require more advanced methods of diagnosis such as detailed blood tests, urinalysis, x-rays, ultrasound or surgical biopsies.

What treatment can be given?

Most surface abscesses can be easily treated by being lanced, drained and cleaned. This procedure will, however, require either local or general anaesthesia.  Due to the infection, your dog will be given a course of antibiotics and possibly pain relief and anti-inflammatory drugs to take home. Your vet will want to see your dog for a couple of follow-up appointments to check that the area is healing properly.

For an internal abscess, more invasive treatment will be required.  If your pet has a tooth abscess the tooth will need to be removed, or root canal treatment performed, to drain and remove the abscess. Surgery is also likely to be required to treat lung, live and pancreatic abscesses and abscessed anal sacs.

If the abscess ruptures and the infection spreads into the blood stream your dog will quickly develop sepsis. The rupture of an internal abscesses can lead to peritonitis.  Both infections are extremely serious and can be life threatening. Your pet will require urgent hospitalisation where they will receive intravenous antibiotics, fluids and supportive care.

How to prevent abscesses

To avoid your dog from developing an abscess, check them daily for any wounds and if you notice anything, contact your vet who can advise how to treat it and whether an appointment is necessary. If the injury is only superficial, you are likely to be advised to use an over-the-counter, pet formulated anti-bacterial cream to help prevent infection.

If your vet prescribes antibiotics, be sure to complete the course to prevent any infection from returning.

If your dog has bouts of snorting or sneezing, especially during spring and summer walks, check their eyes, mouth and nose for plant matter which can become lodged in soft tissue and may have progressed to the lungs. Any concerns, take him to the vet to be checked over.