Lymphedema in Dogs

Compression bandages on the affected limb can help reduce swelling.
Dean Golja/Digital Vision/Getty Images

If your poor pooch is looking like she is experiencing menstrual water retention in her legs, she may be suffering from lymphedema. Lymphedema is a condition whereby the lymphatic system does not work correctly, resulting in localized fluid buildup, typically in the legs. While normally not painful, this condition can be hereditary or the result of an underlying condition. No cure has existed so far, but the condition is not normally painful.

What Is Lymphedema?

In the lymphatic system, the lymph nodes work to filter fluid from the tissues, known as lymph, back into the bloodstream. When this filtering of fluid is obstructed, either through inflammation of the lymph nodes or compression of the tissues, the fluid is unable to return to the bloodstream and collects in the area of the obstruction.

Primary and Secondary Lymphedema

Primary lymphedema is the result of a congenital disorder affecting the lymphatic system. Secondary lymphedema is the result of an underlying medical condition. It may also be idiopathic, with no underlying cause. Some causes include birth defects in organs or body tissues, abnormal organ size or incomplete development of the organ, organ or tissue trauma, tumors, radiation therapy or heart disease.

Symptoms Your Dog May Experience

Hereditary lymphedema often presents symptoms when the dog is young; sometimes as early as shortly after birth. You may notice swelling in the hind limbs, starting near the paws and moving upward. While the hind legs are most commonly affected, you may also notice swelling on the front legs, paws, chest, abdomen, ears and tail. When you press the swollen area, you may notice an indentation that is slow to return to normal. In addition to swelling, your dog may experience weakness, difficulty walking, lethargy, skin discoloration, delayed healing and pain.

Breeds at Risk

While any dog breed may suffer from secondary lymphedema, primary lymphedema occurs most often in certain predisposed breeds. These breeds include the Belgian Tervuren, the borzoi, the English bulldog, the German shepherd, the German shorthaired pointer, the Great Dane, the Labrador retriever, the old English sheepdog, the poodle and the Rottweiler.

Reducing the Swelling

While no cure for lymphedema existed at the time of publication, treatment focuses on reducing the swelling and discomfort. Pressure wraps, warm water massage and heating pads can help reduce swelling. Your veterinarian may prescribe a benzopyrone medication that can help reduce swelling. Antibiotics may be necessary if secondary infections develop as a result of swelling.