A hygroma is a fluid-filled swelling surrounded by a thick capsule of fibrous tissue that develops under the skin over a bony prominence, such as an elbow.
Hygromas are not typically painful for dogs, but if left untreated, they can become infected. Here’s what you need to know about hygroma treatment and prevention.
Should I be worried about my dog’s hygroma?
According to veterinarian Dr. Chad Maki from Irvine Pet Hospital in California, a hygroma is not a tumor, but it’s also not simply rough, callused skin.
“They are most commonly found over the elbow but can form over any bony area such as on the side of the ankle (the hock) or over a hip,” he explains. “When they start to form, hygromas are usually small, soft and fairly mobile. But if they grow larger, they can become unsightly or hard to the touch although typically aren’t painful for a dog,” he adds.
How do hygromas form?
A hygroma is a result of a bony area like an elbow continually being in contact with hard surfaces, such as when a dog lies down and gets up again on hardwood floors, tiles and concrete outdoor areas. This repeated “knocking” causes inflammation and results in the body trying to protect itself by creating a fluid-filled “pillow.”
Hygromas are most common in larger, heavier dog breeds and particularly in dogs who are more sedentary and spend more of their time lying down, thus increasing the time that pressure is applied over the hygroma site.
Can dog hygromas become infected?
Continuous pressure on the elbow can result in the skin cracking, which allows bacteria that typically lives on the skin to penetrate the hygroma. Severe lesions can turn into ulcers, also called pressure sores, and can be further complicated by blocked hair follicles. At this stage, the site may become swollen and painful to the touch.
How to treat a dog’s hygroma
“Prevention and early intervention is the best approach,” says Dr. Maki. “If a hygroma forms, early management that is aimed at reducing pressure at the site may be able to keep it at bay, or even reduce it down to an insignificant size, even eliminating it completely. This can be achieved with heavily padded bedding, reducing time lying on hard surfaces and rotating hot and cold compresses daily to the site. But take care not to damage the skin with hot and cold therapy,” he cautions.
“Should the hygroma grow to an unwieldy size or become infected, it will need to be treated with topical and systemic antibiotic and anti-inflammatory therapies, which can be administered at home.”
Dr. Maki adds that surgery is not often recommended because healing and full recovery is difficult as you can’t stop a dog from lying down on his elbows.
There are now commercially available elbow pads, such as Dogleggs adjustable pads, designed specifically to protect hygromas by preventing further growth, pain and infection. These elbow pads are sized to the dog and then adjustable for a fine-tuned fit. Most dogs will easily tolerate protective elbow pads.
“However, care must be taken to ensure that there is a proper fit to prevent other unwanted pressure, sore development or skin irritation that can be caused by the pad straps,” Dr. Maki cautions.
Preventing hygroma growth
Home lifestyle changes such as providing dogs with memory foam beds and lots of soft surfaces such as carpets and rugs can help hygromas from forming in the first place and take pressure of a hygroma that has already formed. Beds with bolsters give dogs, especially large breeds, support to comfortably lean against. Interlocking foam tiles that are popular in fitness clubs and child daycare facilities can help, too. Consider placing them in a designated area in the family room where the dog is mostly likely to hang out with family.