German shepherd with a pressure sore

The picture above is my beautiful dog Cody who suffered from pressure sores when he got to be an old boy. If you live with a senior dog or a canine with mobility problems you should know about pressure sores and hygromas in dogs. These common skin injuries can turn into a big problem, if they aren’t treated quickly.

The reason old and disabled dogs are prone to pressure sores (decubital ulcers) and their counterpart, hygromas, is simple. They have less muscle mass and they lie around more than healthy, young dogs.

Pet owners need to be able to recognize a skin ulcer early, because while it’s easy to understand how they start, treating a pressure sore can be a long and hard road for you and your pup.

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What is a pressure sore (decubitus ulcer or bed sore)?

A pressure sore is a chronic injury to the skin. It happens when a dog lies on a hard surface for an extended period of time without changing positions. The weight from lying in one spot decreases blood flow to the area, damaging the skin and tissue. The skin breaks down and develops an open wound.

At first, these wounds start on the surface of the skin, but if they aren’t treated fast, they can grow deep into the bone, causing a lot of pain to your dog.

They typically develop over bony areas on a dog’s body like the elbows, hips and hocks (lower joint of the leg).

Paralyzed dogs are prone to the problem for several reasons:

  • They have trouble flipping their body from one position to another.
  • Their muscle mass and tissue padding atrophy from lack of use.
  • The decrease in muscle mass increases pressure to the bony areas on their body.

 Prevention of pressure sores in dogs

An orthopedic dog bed helps to prevent pressure sores.

In addition to making sure your pet doesn’t lie in one position for too long, there are other measures you can take to prevent skin ulcers.

A simple technique is to buy an orthopedic dog bed. The mattresses on these beds are designed to stop the breakdown of skin by distributing a dog’s weight evenly over the surface.

Another technique is to cover the susceptible bony areas on your dog’s body. Elastic bandages can be wrapped around a dog’s arms, elbows and legs. Pet owners can also use dog or human baby garments to cover the areas. Baby onesies are a great, affordable option for small dogs and pet recovery suits or body suits can be used for larger animals.

A favorite solution I discovered was the use of compression sleeves for dogs. They fit over a dog’s front and hind legs.

Compression sleeves for dogs from Walkabout Harnesses.

Symptoms of pressure sores and hygromas in dogs

Here are the early symptoms to watch out for:

  • Patches of exposed fur; particularly on the hips, elbows and hocks.
  • Discoloration of the skin.
  • Skin that becomes thick like a callous.
  • Skin that’s puffy or swollen.
  • Excessive licking by your dog on a specific area.

Advanced warning signs that call for veterinary care:

  • The color of the skin is red or purple.
  • There is an open wound on the skin.
  • The wound is seeping yellow or green fluid or pus.
  • There is a foul smell coming from the wound.
  • Your dog is in pain.

How pressure sores are treated

Take pressure off the wound. – An orthopedic dog bed, a pillow or even an inflatable donut works well. Turn your dog over every couple of hours.

See your veterinarian. – Your vet will determine whether the skin ulcer has an underlying infection. If this is the case, dogs are treated with antibiotics, topical antiseptics and dressings.

Deep wounds may need surgery. – Ulcers that go deep into the skin or bone might require your vet to debride the skin. That’s when dead or diseased tissue is surgically removed so healthy tissue can grow.

Be patient. – It takes 2-4 weeks before the skin begins to heal. You’ll know you’re on the right track with the size of the wound gets smaller. New healthy tissue grows at the edges and slowly closes the wound.

Do not let your dog stay in one position for more than 2-3 hours.

What is a hygroma?

Dog with a hygroma pressure sore

Reuben is a paralyzed shepherd mix who had a large hygroma on his hip.

Hygromas are nearly the opposite of pressure sores. They begin in the same way as a decubitus ulcer, but instead of the skin breaking down, the tissues around bony areas swell and fill with fluid.

The swelling of a hygroma isn’t painful and if it’s caught early your vet can treat it by aspirating the area with a needle and releasing the fluid.

Some hygromas are more serious and can become infected. They require more advanced drainage techniques or surgery. When a hygroma grows very large or becomes infected drainage tubes are inserted into the area to decrease the fluid buildup.

Other hygromas develop an abscess or sore on top. These require surgery to remove the bad skin and grafts to reconstruct the area with healthy skin. Untreated hygromas can be life-threatening.

The best ways to prevent hygromas

Old sad labrador retriever


These suggestions are similar to the prevention techniques of pressure sores, but they’re worth noting again.

Change your dog’s position often – Help them turn to a new position every 2-3 hours.

Invest in an Orthopedic dog bed – Many manufacturers sell dog beds made of Egg-crate and foam mattresses make a big difference.

Do range of motion exercises – Basic physical therapy exercises will keep your paralyzed dog’s joints and muscles flexible and strong. Talk to your veterinarian about the proper way to perform daily range of motion techniques.

Massage therapy – Learn how to use massage techniques for your paralyzed dog’s hips and limbs. It is a good way to keep blood flowing to the muscles and surrounding tissue.

Want to learn how to do range of motion exercises with your dog: Read our article – 9 Dog Physical Therapy Exercises You Can Do At Home.

Cody’s abscess complication

Dog with abscess on the hip

Cody suffered from Inflammatory Bowel Disease when he became an old dog. His problems with digestion led to weight and muscle loss. The skin on his hip began to breakdown and I was treating it with our vet so that it didn’t turn into a pressure sore.

Then one day I noticed an area on his hip was swelling. It was unusual because if felt hard to the touch, rather than soft like a hygroma.

Our vet tried to drain it, but the fluid didn’t empty from the wound. It caused her to think he might have a mast cell tumor. She did a blood test and sent us home to wait for the results.

During the evening Cody became more and more restless and uncomfortable. It turned out the hard mass was an abscess brewing inside the pressure sore. It burst and Cody had to be hospitalized.

An abscess is a fibrous capsule that develops under the skin and can be located near a pressure sore. It’s painful and can cause a serious infection. If bacteria from the abscess travels into the bloodstream, it can cause a high fever and even death.

Most dogs with a skin ulcer don’t develop this complication, but as a pet owner it’s something you should know… just in case.

Cody recovered from the abscess and was sent home from the veterinary hospital two days later.

Want to learn more about taking care of a senior or disabled dogs? Check out our article about Three Key Elements to Stop Urinary Tract Infections.