Our Vet Explains: Can an Abscess Kill a Dog or Lead to Serious Health Complications?

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Most abscesses in our furry family members are minor infections that are easily treatable. But as a seasoned veterinarian, I’ve witnessed the cascading effects an abscess can have on our four-legged friends. Untreated, an abscess has the potential to cause life-threatening complications, such as septicemia. 

This article dives into the world of canine abscesses, shedding light on their possible causes, dangers, and the essential steps owners should take to ensure their pet’s well-being.

Can an abscess seriously impact the overall health and well-being of a dog?

dog looks sick, sitting on a blanket with bandage around the leg

In most cases, abscesses are not medical emergencies and respond well to veterinary treatment. Prognosis and treatment recommendations will vary significantly depending on the underlying cause and location of the abscess. The real danger arises from complications of an untreated abscess. Septicemia, resulting from the spread of infection, can be fatal if not treated promptly. It’s this indirect threat that makes abscesses particularly concerning.

Potential dangers of abscesses in dogs

If an abscess is severe or left untreated, it has the potential to cause significant and potentially life-threatening complications, such as septicemia or sepsis. Essentially, it’s the body’s extreme response to an infection that enters the bloodstream. When an abscess, a localized pocket of infection, isn’t managed promptly, bacteria can migrate into the bloodstream, triggering sepsis.

Dogs with sepsis may exhibit fever or hypothermia, rapid heart rate, increased breathing rate or effort, lethargy, appetite loss, pale or bluish gums, vomiting, diarrhea, confusion, decreased urine production, or even collapse. Immediate veterinary care is crucial.

Treatment typically involves intravenous antibiotics, fluids for hydration and circulation support, oxygen therapy, pain relief, and close monitoring of vital signs. The prognosis largely depends on early detection and aggressive treatment. To prevent sepsis, it’s essential to treat infections, like abscesses, promptly and ensure regular veterinary check-ups. 

Additional complications of abscess may include significant tissue damage and pain. Furthermore, the symptoms and potential for complications tend to be much more severe for an abscess located in the chest or abdomen than one located in the skin or exterior of the body. 

Can an abscess kill a dog?

An external abscess is unlikely to be fatal, however, an internal abscess in the chest or abdomen could be. The real danger arises from lack of treatment leading to complications such as septicemia described above. 

How to help a dog with an abscess: starting with basic home care

If you suspect your dog has an abscess, it’s crucial to consult a veterinarian for a diagnosis and proper treatment recommendations. However, there are some general steps you can take for basic home care to provide initial relief and prevent the situation from worsening:

Keep the area clean: Gently clean the surface of the abscess with warm water if your dog tolerates it. Ensure you’re wearing gloves to prevent the spread of infection and to protect yourself.

Apply warm compresses: A warm, damp cloth can be held against the abscess for about 10 minutes a few times a day. This can help alleviate pain and potentially encourage the abscess to rupture and drain. Ensure the cloth is clean and the water is not too hot.

Prevent the dog from licking or biting the abscess: Consider using an E collar to prevent your dog from reaching the abscessed area. This is crucial as licking or biting can exacerbate the infection and delay healing. Learn about our veterinarian team’s recommendations to prevent a dog from licking a wound.

Check for fever: While a mild fever can be a natural response to an infection, a high fever may indicate that the infection is spreading. Knowing how to check your dog’s temperature rectally and having a designated pet thermometer can be useful. Read our article about the best ways to tell if your dog has a fever.

Avoid squeezing or puncturing the abscess: It might be tempting to try and drain the abscess yourself, but this can push the infection deeper and potentially spread it. It’s best to let a veterinarian handle this.

When you should not delay a visit to the vet 

dog treated with a bandage around the leg

Regardless of the location and cause of the abscess, it is not something that can be treated at home. Specifically, if you notice systemic signs of illness, such as loss of appetite, fever, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, or respiratory distress, an urgent vet appointment will be required. 

Treatment options and likely costs

The treatment of abscesses in dogs typically involves a combination of surgical and medical interventions to remove the pocket of pus and treat infection. The recommended treatments and associated costs will vary significantly based on the cause and location of the abscess, but may include: 

  • Initial exam ($75-100) and testing such as bloodwork and culture ($50-300)
  • Drainage and Flushing ($100-500): The primary treatment for an abscess is to open and drain the pus to alleviate pressure and pain. This process involves making a small incision into the abscess, manually expressing the pus, and thoroughly flushing the cavity with a sterile solution. It may be performed under sedation or general anesthesia. 
  • Surgery ($500-2000): In some cases, especially for deep or complicated abscesses, surgical exploration and drainage may be required. For example, to treat a tooth root abscess the affected tooth must be extracted. 
  • Antibiotics ($20-100): Most dogs with abscesses will be prescribed antibiotics to treat the underlying bacterial infection. The choice of antibiotic might be broad-spectrum initially, but can be tailored based on culture and sensitivity tests.
  • Pain Management ($20-100): Pain relief medications, like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), may be prescribed to manage pain and inflammation associated with the abscess.
  • Follow-up Appointments ($50-100): Regular vet visits after the initial treatment ensure the abscess is healing well and the infection is under control. 

Overall, a simple abscess that just requires drainage and antibiotics might cost between $170 to $800. In contrast, a more complicated case requiring surgical intervention, hospitalization, and additional treatments can exceed $2,000 to $3,000.

Overview of abscesses in dogs

An abscess is essentially a pocket of pus that forms within the body, usually resulting from a bacterial infection. In dogs, they can arise due to several causes, such as bites, wounds, or internal infections. The body’s immune response is to wall off the infection, leading to the formation of an abscess. 

Abscesses can develop in various parts of the body. While they frequently appear on the skin as swollen, red, and painful lumps that will sometimes rupture and ooze, they can also occur internally. Two common types of abscesses include tooth root abscesses, which arise from infections in the tooth or gum, and anal gland abscesses, resulting from blocked and infected anal glands. Regardless of their location, abscesses require timely medical attention to prevent the spread of infection and potential complications.

Symptoms of abscess in dogs include localized swelling, redness, and sometimes discharge. Additionally, a dog might exhibit signs like lethargy, fever, loss of appetite, and obvious discomfort. Depending on the location, symptoms might vary — an abscess in the mouth might result in drooling, while one on the paw might cause limping. 

Disclaimer: This website's content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your veterinarian for healthcare decisions. Read More.

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