If you just noticed a fluid-filled lump on your dog's elbows, chances are, you are dealing with an annoying elbow hygroma.
Elbow hygromas in dogs are not uncommon and the typical fluid-filled lump is the signature look of this condition. As the name implies, elbow hygromas are typically found on the dog's elbows, but occasionally they can also develop in other places such as the dog's hip and hock.
Fortunately when caught early, most elbow hygromas in dogs can be treated, but in severe cases, surgical intervention may be necessary.
False Bursa in Dogs
Also known as false bursa, elbow seroma or olecranon bursitis, a hygroma is simply a fluid-filled lump that tends to develop over a bony prominence that acts as a pressure point.
The most common place where a dog hygroma develops is by the dog's elbow due to the prominence of the pointy bone of the elbow, the olecranon.
A dog's elbows are prone to repeated friction and trauma because of the dog's tendency to lie down on hard surfaces. Think of it as a bed sore or a huge blister that develops from friction!
The repeated friction and trauma elicits a state of inflammation, which develops into swelling and the signature lump that dog owners notice.
Hygromas in dogs are more commonly seen in older large breed dogs, especially those who are overweight. Because they are often seen in dogs who sleep a lot on cement or other hard floors, elbow hygromas are sometimes referred to as "kennel calluses."
Fortunately, hygromas are more unsightly than painful (they can grow to be up to two inches in diameter). You can consider them as "nature's natural padding" to cover up a thinly padded joint area that is vulnerable to friction. While small hygromas are mostly a cosmetic issue, consider that they can become particularly troublesome when they get large, and most of all, infected.
Providing Soft Materials
The good news is that elbow hygromas in dogs can be managed and treated without surgery when caught in the early stages. At this early stage, it is possible to help the area heal by providing the dog with soft bedding and padding over the pressure points (DogLeggs).
Many dogs dislike soft bedding or carpets when it gets warm as they seek cooler floors. A Coolaroo elevated dog bed may be helpful for these dogs.
The main goal in treating a hygroma is providing protection of the fibrous tissues, allowing the area to finally heal. How long does it take for a hygroma to heal in dogs? Generally, hygromas tend to heal on their own in over 2 to 3 weeks as long as soft bedding and padding is provided, explains veterinarian Dr. Sam.
As tempting as it may be to pierce the swelling with a needle to tap off the fluid, consider that this is counterproductive considering that this can predispose the skin to infection and complications.
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At the Vet's Office
Your vet will inspect the area and determine if it's a hygroma.
There are several other possibilities for lumps in the elbow area such as hematomas, lipomas and some types of tumors.
If in doubt, your vet may wish to take a needle aspirate to determine what the lump exactly is.
In cases where the dog's hygroma starts leaking started a clear fluid, it may be necessary to apply an antibacterial chlorhexidine scrub (like (Hebiclens) on the area and in severe cases, the dog may require a course of systemic antibiotics.
At lager stages when there is an infection, surgical intervention may be needed. In this case the area needs to be drained, flushed and treated. The goal is to remove the bursa that's holding the fluid buildup together.
The use of Penrose drains or closed suction drains may be recommended by the vet, however, recurrence rates are high, and complications are unfortunately not too uncommon. Severe cases may require skin grafts to close the incision as there's not much skin in the elbow.
After surgery, the surgical area may drain fluids for about 7 to 10 days and the dog may require antibiotics. The area is not easy to heal as considerable tension is placed on the incision area and the area is not easy to bandage.
Dogs must often wear an Elizabethan collar to ensure the dog doesn't lick the area. Restricted activity is important to prevent the dog from bumping the elbow area against furniture and walls.
Surgical intervention should be a last resort when other options were tried and failed.
How much does treatment for a dog hygroma cost? Typically expect to pay upwards of $500, and add into that the cost of the antibiotics which can easily be amount to an $100-$200 depending on how long they must be administered.
"I typically do not suggest surgical treatment for these... healing is difficult due to the constant movement and stretching of the area. You can wind up with a much bigger problem than you started with."~ Dr. Drew, veterinarian
Hygroma on a Black Lab, ArtByCedar - Own work, This is a hygroma on the right elbow of a black labrador retriever. Public Domain