Lymphedema in Dogs: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment
Lymphedema in dogs is caused by a failure of the lymphatic system, a network of organs, ducts and vessels through which lymph circulates. This transparent and whitish liquid is in charge of transporting immune cells (especially lymphocytes) and chyle, the liquid coming from the intestines which contains proteins and fats.
Although some breeds are more prone to suffer from lymphedema, the truth is that any dog can suffer from it. Therefore, in this article, we’ll bring you everything you need to know about this disease, its causes, and how it’s treated. Don’t miss it.
What is lymphedema?
Canine lymphedema is the accumulation of fluid in the interstitial space, the space around the cells. In this case, it occurs mainly at the level of the subcutaneous tissue. The cause of this accumulation lies in a malfunction of the lymphatic network, whether in terms of lymph nodes, blood vessels, or organs.
Lymphedema is hereditary, chronic, and can be a disease in itself or appear adjacent to other pathologies. This leads to the distinction between primary lymphedema (when the problem is in the lymphatic system itself) or a secondary disease to other pathological processes.
Sometimes this accumulation of interstitial fluid appears after surgery.
Symptoms of lymphedema in dogs
The main sign you will find in your dog is swelling of the affected area. It’s most often seen on the forelimbs, genitals, abdomen, and ears. This swollen area is characteristic because it has the following properties:
- When it appears in a limb, it usually starts in the most distal area due to the effect of gravity. Thus, you’ll first see swollen toes in the dog, but over time it will spread to the trunk by accumulation.
- When the affected area is pressed, the mark persists for a few seconds.
- The skin in the affected area is usually thinner and has a porous and fragile appearance.
- It’s usually painless.
- Unlike swellings, lymphedema isn’t warm to the touch, nor is it colder than normal.
- Occasionally, the lymph nodes in the area can’t be found by palpation.
Due to the discomfort of this swelling, the dog may be less active. If they’re in pain, you’ll see them licking and nibbling the area, but you shouldn’t allow them to do so, and this can cause wounds that would be difficult to treat later, as well as creating an easy access area for infections.
Depending on whether it’s primary or secondary, lymphedema in dogs has different causes. Here you can look at it separately:
- Primary lymphedema: This is usually caused by defects in the development of the lymph vessels and lymph nodes, i.e. it’s congenital. Breeds such as the bulldog, German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever, German pug, or Dachshund are prone to these disorders.
- Secondary lymphedema: when it is another pathology that causes this disease, it is usually the occurrence of tumors, obstruction of lymphatic vessels, surgery, trauma and inflammatory diseases.
To determine where the origin of the problem lies, it’s necessary to perform a series of diagnostic tests on the dog. These include blood tests, urinalysis, skin biopsy, contrast radiography (to see the state of the lymph nodes), or magnetic resonance imaging.
These tests are also used to make a differential diagnosis with other diseases, such as venous edema.
Since it’s a chronic condition, there’s no treatment that can cure lymphedema in dogs definitively. However, these canines can have quality of life as long as prompt intervention is made when swelling is detected. Some of the techniques used are as follows:
- Robert-Jones compressive bandage: Quite useful at the beginning of the onset, as it helps to prevent fluid from accumulating in the distal area of the paws.
- Rigid bandages: For more advanced stages, a splint or cast is usually used.
- Drugs: In the short term it can be treated with diuretics, but this treatment should be extended. Tocopherol nicotinate and sodium sulfonate hydrate are being tested in recent years, as they seem to give good results.
- Surgery: When all else fails, surgical intervention is resorted to. Generally, the choice is to remove the edematous tissue, reconstruct it or, in the worst case, amputate the limb.
If the lymphedema is caused by another disease, then treatment will be directed to correct it first.
As you can see, it’s very important to go to the veterinarian as soon as the first symptoms appear, as it can mean the difference between simply putting a bandage on your dog or them ending up in the operating room.
In addition, many of the symptoms of lymphedema are similar to those of venous stasis, cardiac or renal failure, cirrhosis and hypoproteinemia, so a differential diagnosis is required before starting any treatment.
All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.
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- Hsu, J. F., Yu, R. P., Stanton, E. W., Wang, J., & Wong, A. K. (2021). Current Advancements in Animal Models of Postsurgical Lymphedema: A Systematic Review. Advances in Wound Care.
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