Dogs get gangrene as it happens in other species of animals and in people, but to better understand the dynamics behind the formation of gangrene in dogs, it helps to gain a closer insight into what gangrene is and how it forms. If you suspect your dog has gangrene, it is best to consult with your veterinarian considering that gangrene can turn out being life threatening if left untreated. Veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec explains gangrene in dogs, how it forms, what causes it and what treatment is required to resolve the issue.
Causes of Gangrene in Dogs
Gangrene is what occurs when part of the body loses its blood supply. Simply stated, gangrene kills healthy tissues, thus causing pain and discomfort. Gangrene sets in, develops and spreads really quickly. If left untreated gangrene can be fatal. Therefore, gangrene is considered to be a serious, life-threatening emergency that requires immediate attention. If you suspect gangrene in your dog, seek immediate veterinary assistance.
Sadly, when dogs get gangrene, it is much harder to spot than it is in humans. This is because the fur can cover the damaged tissues for a long period of time. When the fur falls off and the gangrene becomes visible, the condition has already significantly advanced.
What causes gangrene in dogs? When it comes to living organisms, blood is multi-functional. It carries and transports oxygen, nutrients and disease-fighting antibodies to every cell in the body. If the blood flow is impaired, cells die, infections develop and tissues are damaged beyond repair.
A gangrene case may start with an untreated open wound. The wound allows infiltration of bacteria and becomes infected. Untreated infections lead to gangrene. So generally speaking, gangrene occurs in cases of impaired blood flow and in cases of wound infections.
To be more accurate, the most common causes of gangrene are traumatic injuries such as burns, freezes, dog bites, cuts, gunshot wounds and crushes and surgical site infections. Other causes include canine diabetes and anything that may cause impaired blood flow.
All issues that interfere with proper blood flow increase the risk of gangrene and are considered to be predisposing factors. Those issues include: atherosclerosis, peripheral arterial disease and Raynaud’s phenomenon – a condition in which the blood vessels that supply the skin become narrowed. The narrowing is intermittent but its consequences can be permanent.
Types of Gangrene in Dogs
Based on where it develops, gangrene can be present externally – usually affecting paws, toes, limbs, ears and tails or internally – affecting internal tissues and organs.
While humans almost always get gangrene on an external body part, dogs can develop gangrene internally. For example, dogs can develop internal gangrene when they have twisted intestines or from an infected nipple due to harsh nursing. Internal gangrene is more serious than external gangrene because it can damage vital organs.
Based on its characteristics, gangrene can be:
- Dry – usually affecting the feet and paws. It often develops due to poor circulation. In most cases, dry gangrene is not accompanied by infection. However, if left untreated it can be infected and convert to wet gangrene.
- Wet – it is always accompanied by an infection. It got its name because of the draining pus that makes the affected area moist. Infections associated with wet gangrene have a tendency to spread really fast. There are two sub-types of wet gangrene:
- Gas gangrene – occurs rarely, but once it develops it is really dangerous. Gas gangrene occurs when there is an infection deep inside the body and it is almost always due to severe trauma. The bacteria responsible for gas gangrene are from the Clostridium group. They produce toxins, poisons and gases. The gases are trapped and accumulate in the affected tissue. If left untreated, patients with gas gangrene can die within 48 hours.
- Fournier’s gangrene – a particularly rare type of gangrene caused by infections in the genital area.
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Symptoms of Gangrene in Dogs
When dogs get gangrene the affected area presents as discolored (usually the skin becomes blue or black and the tissues under the skin become red or bronze), moist and there is a sticky discharge with sweet to foul odor. Depending on the phase, pus and blood may leak from the affected area. The skin above the affected area is dry, shriveled and eventually sloughs off. At first, the affected site is painful and then it becomes numb. Pressing the affected area may result in a crackling sound.
Generally, a dog with gangrene will show the following signs and symptoms:
- Loss of appetite
- Severe abdominal pain (in cases of internal gangrene).
Gangrene may be prone to complications. If the gangrene infection enters the bloodstream the dog will develop sepsis and eventually go into septic shock. The symptoms associated with sepsis include:
- Low blood pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid heartbeat
- Body temperature changes
- Body pain and rash
- Cold, clammy and pale skin
At the Vet's Office
How is gangrene diagnosed in dogs? The diagnosis includes several steps and procedures: a physical examination, blood tests – to check the white blood cells count (should be high in case of a gangrene), tissue culture – to determine the type of bacteria causing the infection and tissue samples examination – to find cellular evidence of cell death.
The gangrene treatment has several goals:
- Removing the dead tissue – dead tissue can be removed in two ways: surgical removal – also known as debridement and non-surgical removal – also known as maggot therapy. This type of treatment uses maggots from laboratory bred fly larvae. The maggots are placed on the affected area where they consume the dead tissue without damaging the healthy tissue. Additionally, maggots are beneficial because they fight the infection and promote the overall healing process by releasing substances that kill bacteria.
- Preventing further infection spread – achieved with antibiotics.
- Eliminating the infection – also achieved with antibiotics.
- Treating the underlying cause that led to gangrene.
In some cases, when dogs get gangrene, amputation may be necessary to prevent the gangrene from reaching vital organs. Amputation is applicable when the gangrene is on a terminal body part such as limb, ear or tail. After the amputation, the patient is put on a relatively long course of antibiotics to make sure all bacteria are destroyed. The exact recovery time depends on which part of the body was amputated.
Dogs with gangrene may benefit from oxygen therapy. This treatment is performed in specifically designed hyperbaric oxygen chambers. The high oxygen levels in the chamber saturate the blood and promote better healing of the dying tissues. Plus, the oxygen-rich environment inhibits the growth of certain strains of bacteria.
To restore proper blood flow and prevent relapses some dogs may need vascular surgery (bypass surgery, angioplasty).
The prognosis for a dog with gangrene depends on several factors:
- Location of the gangrene
- How fast diagnosis was set
- How fast treatment was initiated.
About the Author
Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.