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Sebaceous Cysts in Dogs: What They Look Like & What to Do

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Dog with sebaceous cyst near its eyes

Dogs are part of our families, and as pet parents, we want to ensure that they are always happy and healthy. Unfortunately, our furry friends cannot speak to us, so we must be extra vigilant to spot health issues early. Sebaceous Cysts in dogs is one health issue for which dog owners should be watchful, but thankfully, they are rarely cause for major concern and can be addressed by veterinarians fairly easily.

It is common for owners to be petting their dog and suddenly discover a lump or bump. One very common bump found on dogs is the sebaceous cyst. Gross et al. (2005) states that these masses account for 37.2% of all sebaceous tumors in dogs1. Thankfully these lumps aren’t cancerous, but they can cause issues. Understanding sebaceous cysts will help ensure you get your dog the proper treatment.

Sebaceous Cysts in Dogs

Sebaceous Cyst on dog

Cysts are abnormal growths on a dog’s skin that are filled with liquid or a thick, pus-like material. They are typically hollow masses with the liquid contents trapped inside. The contents of a sebaceous cyst are sebum and dead skin, oil secretions, dirt, and hair cells.  

Dogs have sebaceous glands, which are glands located in the skin layer that secrete sebum into the base of hair follicles. Sebum is a waxy, oily secretion that is used for lubrication of the skin and hair.

Sebaceous cysts may form when the sebaceous gland becomes blocked and then clogged. If left blocked for a period of time, the material in the gland cannot exit the duct and may form into a cyst on top of the skin.

Though unlikely to be cancerous, sebaceous cysts can significantly impact your dog’s quality of life. Some sebaceous cysts are not bothersome to the dog at all, but some may cause itching, pain, and irritation that causes your dog great distress. These cysts will need to be removed surgically.

Where Sebaceous Cysts Form

Sebaceous cysts arise from the skin and the hair follicles located within it, so they may be found almost anywhere on a dog’s body.

However, sebaceous cysts are most common on the top of the head, neck, chest, abdomen, and back.

Physical Characteristics of a Sebaceous Cyst

When you notice a new lump or bump on your dog, the first thing to do is to make an appointment with their veterinarian. However, in the meantime, there are some characteristics you can look for to try to determine if the lump your dog has is, in fact, a sebaceous cyst.

Sebaceous cysts are more common in middle age to older dogs. They are seen more often in dogs with a previous history of sebaceous cysts.

Upon inspection, a sebaceous cyst will be small, attached to the skin, and typically the same color as the skin or whitish pink. You may notice a sebaceous cyst for the first time when your dog is licking it or scratching at it. Sebaceous cysts can irritate dogs, and you may find wet hair or discoloration in the area.

Sebaceous cysts are also often discovered after a grooming when the hair is shorter and the cysts are more visible. It is also common for groomers to accidentally nick a cyst they cannot see, resulting in mild bleeding and scabbing, making the cyst more noticeable.


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How To Identify Sebaceous Cysts

Any newly noticed lump or bump should be evaluated by your dog’s veterinarian as soon as possible. When you speak to your veterinarian, be prepared to show the location of the lumps or bumps to them, as well as a brief history of how long they have been present and how quickly they are getting larger.

The doctor will likely need to perform a test called a fine needle aspirate to start to determine the cause of the mass. This entails taking a small needle to take a sample of cells from the mass and examining them under a high-powered microscope.

Often, a sebaceous cyst is easily identified with this simple procedure. However, sometimes the cause isn’t able to be determined with this small sample of cells. In this case, your veterinarian may recommend taking a biopsy and sending it to a veterinary pathologist to be examined.

A biopsy can typically be performed in the veterinarian’s office with either light sedation or general anesthesia. A small sample of the mass will be removed and sent to the lab for interpretation by the veterinary pathologist. This procedure enables a more accurate diagnosis.

Alternatively, your dog’s doctor may recommend proceeding to surgical removal. This allows for removal of the mass as soon as possible, and after removal, the mass will be sent to the lab for a diagnosis. This plan of action can remove the need for multiple visits, procedures, and charges from the veterinary pathologist.

Causes of Sebaceous Cysts

There are numerous causes of sebaceous cysts in dogs. Sometimes the exact cause of these cysts is not determined; however, the end result is a blocking of the duct of the gland, resulting in the cyst.

Common issues leading to the formation of sebaceous cysts include the dog’s genetics, trauma to the area, skin infections, and scar tissue.

When sebum, cells, and oil become trapped in the sebaceous gland, the body acts to push the material into a small sac. This is the result of the blockage and how sebaceous cysts are formed.

Sebaceous Cysts and Cancer

Sebaceous cysts are benign growths, meaning they are not cancerous. In rare instances, a sebaceous cyst can be located on top of a cancerous mass, or the two masses can merge to form one. It is important to always have new masses checked by a veterinarian to avoid missing a cancerous growth.

Treatment

The necessary treatment for a dog’s sebaceous cysts depends on whether the cyst is bothering the dog or not. If the cyst itches, bleeds, oozes, or scabs, it will likely need to be removed surgically.

If the cyst is small and not bothering the dog (or the owner), it is reasonable to leave the cyst alone. Some sebaceous cysts will clear over time. Using an anti-seborrheic shampoo that contains benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid can help to unblock the follicles and lead to faster resolution of sebaceous cysts.

Sebaceous cysts should not be squeezed or “popped” by owners. This can lead to pain and infection, as well as scar tissue that will predispose the dog to the formation of more cysts in the future.

Prevention

Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent sebaceous cysts. However, an owner can do things to lessen the occurrence of the cysts.

Frequent brushing, grooming on a regular schedule, and exfoliating or anti-seborrheic shampoos are all helpful for a dog that is predisposed to sebaceous cysts. Encourage the dog to leave any bumps on their skin alone and not to scratch or lick them.

Disclaimer: This website's content is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your local veterinarian for health decisions. Learn more.

Frequently Asked Questions About Sebaceous Cysts in Dogs

1. What are the most frequent locations to find sebaceous cysts?

Though these cysts can technically be found anywhere on a dog’s body, they are most commonly located on the head, neck, chest, abdomen, and back.

2. Which dog breeds are most likely to form sebaceous cysts?

In my experience, schnauzers, both standard and miniature, are by far the most likely breed to present with sebaceous cysts. I frequently diagnose these cysts in other breeds, including Yorkshire Terriers and Shih Tzus. However, any breed may form a sebaceous cyst.

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Citations

1. Gross, T. L., Ihrke, P. J., Walder, E. J., & Affolter, V. K. (2008). Skin Diseases of the Dog and Cat: Clinical and Histopathologic Diagnosis. Blackwell Science Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470752487.

Author

  • Dr. Jamie Whittenburg is the Director and Owner of Kingsgate Animal Hospital, a a full-service animal hospital providing comprehensive pet healthcare services in Lubbock, TX. She graduated from Kansas State University's College of Veterinary Medicine (DVM).

Disclaimer: This website's content is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult with your veterinarian to determine the best course of action. Read More.

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