Sebaceous cysts in a dog are a very common canine problem. Are they worrisome? Are they cancerous? What do they look like?
A few years ago, I was petting my Cocker Spaniel’s neck and noticed a bump that seemed fluid-filled. In the time it took to reach for my eyeglasses to get a closer look, the lump burst. A mess of cottage cheese material and blood oozed from my Dexter’s neck.
Of course, this happened on a Saturday night. I placed my dog on the grooming table (I groom my dog myself) and took a closer look.
Having been a Cocker Spaniel mom for 30 years, I knew what sebaceous cysts in dogs look like. However, to confirm my suspicion, a veterinarian would have to take a look at it with a possible fine needle aspiration or biopsy of the area.
Sebaceous cysts feel hard or squishy and can pretty much appear anywhere on your dog’s skin. They normally don’t cause your dog any pain but they can be irritating.
They form from a buildup of oils in a pore or follicle. The oil begins to harden and in the right environment, a sebaceous cyst forms on your dog.
I’ve been dealing with sebaceous cysts on Cocker Spaniels for decades. There is no definitive way to know what a lump or bump on your dog is without diagnostic testing.
Even the most skilled veterinarian or specialist cannot simply “eyeball” or look at a lump and know what it is.
There are some reasons a dog may get a sebaceous cyst or many in his lifetime. Sometimes they should be removed and other times, surgical excision isn’t necessary.
Here’s everything you need to know about sebaceous cysts in dogs, along with ways to identify and potentially prevent these bothersome growths.
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Sebaceous Cysts in Dog: What Are They?
A cyst in general is an abnormal growth. What makes a sebaceous cyst unique are its contents. All dogs have sebaceous glands in their bodies that open into a hair follicle.
Each canine sebaceous gland secretes a substance called sebum that lubricates their hair. When a dog is diagnosed with a cyst involving hair follicles, these are called follicular cysts.
Sebaceous glands are located all over your dog’s body and are also called sweat glands. You might have heard that brushing your dog regularly is good for his skin and coat.
This is a good idea because the sebaceous glands release keratin oils to moisturize his skin as you brush your dog. Pretty amazing, right?
Your veterinarian may talk about your dog’s sebaceous glands, which are also known as the oil glands.
Sebaceous glands can be found in large numbers near the paws, back of the neck, elbows, hips, head, near the butt, chin, and tail area.
As you might imagine, these are also prime locations for sebaceous cysts to form. When those hair follicles get blocked, oil secretions can build up.
When the oil secretions have nowhere to go, the gland gets blocked and a sebaceous cyst can form. These cysts can vary in size from small to large and as they fill and grow, eventually they may burst.
Most sebaceous cysts are benign but they can be a sign of an underlying condition or something more serious, such as cancer.
If the sebaceous cyst is in an area that gets a lot of movement, your dog may burst it on his own during regular activity.
Should A Dog’s Sebaceous Cyst Be Removed?
Most sebaceous cysts aren’t a medical emergency, but a burst cyst can become a problem fast. When a cyst ruptures or bursts, you are left with an open wound that is prone to infection or inflammation.
When my dog’s sebaceous cyst burst, he happened to be on an antibiotic for an ear infection, so I decided to wait until Monday to see how it progressed. I cleaned the area with hydrogen peroxide and used NeoPredDef powder prescribed by the veterinarian to coat the area.
Your veterinarian may simply treat a burst cyst with antibiotics or medications for pain, inflammation, and to prevent infection. A vet may also want to remove the sac beneath the cyst to prevent a repeat occurrence.
I’ve been through both scenarios: conservative treatment and surgical removal of a sebaceous cyst on my dogs. By removing the cyst and the sac that contains it, it will not come back in that area.
My first Cocker Spaniel had a cyst removed via laser surgery. When the vet showed me the contents beneath her skin, I could not believe my eyes.
Beneath the ruptured sebaceous cyst was a sac that looked like a small brain. He sent it off for pathology, which confirmed the diagnosis. You don’t want to squeeze your dog’s sebaceous cyst, and we will go into more detail below as to why.
What Causes A Sebaceous Cyst On Dogs?
When the dog’s hair follicle is blocked or compromised, sebum builds up. Any number of things can cause a blocked follicle, including:
- Canine genetics
- Some breeds have more sebum or oil production than others, such as Cocker Spaniels. Other breeds more prone to developing sebaceous cysts due to a genetic predisposition include Yorkshire Terriers, Boxers, Doberman Pinschers, Bassets Hounds, and Shih Tzus.
- Trauma to the area
- Skin infection
- Scar tissue
- Allergic reaction (including topical chemical flea preventatives and treatments)
- Hormonal imbalance (have his thyroid checked and a blood panel performed)
- Clogged gland from lack of brushing, shampooing, or both
- Insect bite
- Follicle irritation from grooming
Once your veterinarian confirms the diagnosis of a sebaceous cyst, the true cause is a clogged gland. What caused the clogged gland can be any number of things, as indicated above.
Should I Squeeze My Dog’s Sebaceous Cyst?
No, you should not squeeze the sebaceous cyst. This can cause the cyst wall to rupture, the contents will leak, and your dog can develop an infection.
Sometimes, the cysts rupture and burst on their own. In this case, I allowed the contents to ooze out, cleaned the area, and applied a warm compress or washcloth with warm water to the wound to encourage the further expression of the material inside.
Sometimes the material can be incredibly thick and unable to work its way out of the cyst wall. By squeezing and pushing on, near, or around the area, you cause inflammation and potential infection.
I trimmed the hair around the area where my dog, Dexter’s, sebaceous cyst burst. If you are reading this outside of normal veterinary business hours, you can always call or visit an emergency veterinarian to get help for your dog. The aftermath of a burst sebaceous cyst can resemble a crime scene.
It is tempting to want to burst the cyst and get rid of it. They look like pimples, warts, or a slightly translucent nodule. First, you have no way of knowing what the growth is without diagnostic confirmation.
Trying to pop a sebaceous cyst can help spread its contents even further into the tissue around the area. The result can be inflammation, swelling, and infection.
My first Cocker Spaniel, Brandy Noel, required emergency surgery for her sebaceous cyst. I was working at home when I noticed an area of blood on her back. There was no new lump on her skin when we went to bed the night before. That’s how fast the area filled up and burst.
No matter what I did, the contents of the cyst and the bloody mixture kept oozing from the wound. I phoned our vet at the time who said to bring her right in. He explained the cyst had to be removed or the oozing would continue. She recovered like a champ with a few dissolvable stitches to show for it.
How To Identify a Sebaceous Cyst On Your Dog
Your veterinarian can determine the nature of any lump or bump on your dog using diagnostic tools. Lumps on a dog can range be any number of things, some of which include lipoma, abscess, cutaneous histiocytoma, sebaceous cyst, melanoma, hematoma, basal cell tumor, mast cell tumor, plasmacytoma, fibroma, papilloma, or something else.
You or your veterinarian cannot tell what a lump is simply by looking at it, manipulating it, or comparing it to other lumps you or another dog has.
“I can’t look at a mass and know what it is and you can’t look at a mass and know what it is,” veterinary oncologist, Dr. Sue Ettinger shared at a veterinary conference.
Once your veterinarian examines your dog, she should do one of two things:
- Fine needle aspiration of the lump: By inserting a small needle with syringe, the vet can take a sample of the lump and look at it under a microscope. Some vets can tell you what the lump is in the office and other times, the slide(s) must be sent to an outside laboratory for further analysis or confirmation.
- Tissue biopsy: If the lump is more concerning or a more detailed sample is needed, your veterinarian may choose to do a biopsy. This may be a punch biopsy, a biopsy under local anesthesia, or a biopsy under general anesthesia for larger areas. The sample removed will be sent off to an outside lab for diagnosis.
Whenever my dogs have had a sebaceous cyst, the veterinarian was always able to take an in-office biopsy and proceed with treatment afterward.
Some dogs may be diagnosed with a sebaceous gland adenocarcinoma, which are malignant cysts often found in middle-aged to older dogs.
This type of cyst may metastasize to the lymph nodes or lungs, which is why proper definitive diagnosis is imperative.
If your dog has any swelling, inflammation, infection, or pain associated with the sebaceous cyst, your vet will likely prescribe medications and/or suggest surgical removal.
We’ve been through both circumstances. In the next section, I’ll tell you more about my recent encounter with a canine sebaceous cyst.
Symptoms of A Sebaceous Cyst
Looking at a fatty or firm lump on a dog’s skin doesn’t mean it is a sebaceous cyst. Some common symptoms or indications of a canine sebaceous cyst include swelling, redness, fluid filling or discharge or fluid, white cottage-cheese like discharge, bleeding, infection, inflammation, pain, redness, and possibly multiple lumps.
The above are also symptoms of other lumps. What looks like a sebaceous cyst on one dog may be a lipoma or something more aggressive on another pooch.
Non-Surgical Ways To Deal With A Canine Sebaceous Cyst
Sometimes, under the guidance of your veterinarian, a sebaceous cyst does not need to be removed. When my Dexter’s cyst burst on a Saturday night, I did everything I could to keep the area clean. Knowing he was on an antibiotic for another issue gave me comfort until I could call the vet on Monday.
By Monday morning, the area started to form a scab and was nearly flattened out. I called my vet anyway and told them what happened.
They agreed that since Dexter was on an antibiotic, I had a topical medication to apply, and he was doing well, just to monitor the area. That particular sebaceous cyst never returned.
Some non-surgical ways veterinarians deal with a canine sebaceous cyst include:
- Antibiotics to clear up any infection
- Topical ointments or medication to keep the area clean and free of infection or inflammation
- Anti-inflammatory medication or a topical steroid cream
- Biopsy to be sent out to confirm diagnosis
If a biopsy comes back and the growth isn’t a sebaceous cyst, your veterinarian will go over the diagnosis and treatment options. If a cyst comes back cancerous, treatment will proceed accordingly.
Cysts that heal over by themselves or with medications may return, particularly if the sac containing the cyst isn’t surgically removed. Some of the cysts my dogs have dealt with never returned and some came back with a vengeance.
My first Cocker had a cyst surgically removed, and another appeared in the general area about a year later. The second one resolved on its own after it burst, commonly called a ruptured cyst .
Like dogs, no two lumps are alike. You always want to have your veterinarian take some sort of tissue sample from a lump or bump. Do not take “no” or “it’s just old age warts” for any answer. The naked eye cannot discern what the lump is. Only Superman has x-ray vision.
A veterinarian tried to squeeze a “pimple” on my first Cocker Spaniel. That “pimple” turned out to be canine mast cell cancer that had to be surgically removed and monitored for years.
Never take matters into your own hands or try to replicate what someone does to their dog on YouTube or the Internet in general. Don’t wait, aspirate is the rule of thumb to follow.
The good news about any skin tumors, lumps, or bumps is this: the sooner you get a diagnosis, the sooner your dog can be treated. Plus, you’ll feel at ease knowing if any abnormal growths are of concern.
Treatment Options for Canine Sebaceous Cysts
If traditional or laser surgery is not required, your veterinarian will offer other options, including but not limited to:
- Oral antibiotics
- Oral antiinflammatories
- Topical treatment
A study published in the National Library of Medicine discusses some trials with low-dose isotretinoin, but this has not been widely adopted in veterinary practices as of this writing.
What Does a Sebaceous Cyst Look Like On A Dog?
There is a danger in showing photos of sebaceous cysts because any lump or bump on your dog can be benign or malignant. There are dozens of types of lumps affecting the surface of the skin and beneath as well.
Mast cell tumors are called the ‘great imposters’ because they vary widely in appearance and may resemble a cyst or other benign growth. However, mast cell tumors are one of the most common malignant tumors of the skin.
According to Dr. Brad Hinsperger, DVM, of Kingsdale Animal Hospital, sebaceous cysts generally have these qualities:
- Firm-to-soft in nature
- May have a bluish hue
- Ruptured sebaceous cysts may release a yellow-brown or thick gray substance
- The area surrounding the ruptured cyst may become inflamed or swollen due to a secondary infection
- They do not become cancerous and are considered benign tumors
- Are generally located on the head, neck, torso, or upper limbs but can appear anywhere on a dog’s body
How to Prevent Sebaceous Cysts in Dogs
Raised bumps on a dog that turn out to be sebaceous cysts can be scary, especially if they recur. It’s been my experience that most sebaceous cysts on a dog aren’t one and done.
It seems that dogs who get more than one tend to have them at different points in their life.
There is no 100 percent preventative method to keep sebaceous cysts from forming. However, there are a few things you can do to keep your dog healthy and free of clogged pores.
- Examine your dog’s skin surface regularly. We recommend you do 10 touches at least once a week and chart any growths, new bumps, lumps, or lesions. Make your veterinarian aware of any new findings. Keep track of your dog’s lumps and sizes using our DogMinder Health and Wellness Canine Journal.
- Brush and groom your dog’s coat regularly. By stimulating his coat and skin, you are allowing keratin to coat the skin and keep clean.
- Bathe your dog regularly and feel for anything new across his skin. Make your dog’s groomer aware of any lumps or bumps so they don’t nick or harm the area.
- Take photos of the lumps and use a pair of calipers to monitor them.
- Your veterinarian may suggest or prescribe medicated shampoo.
If you are interested in learning to groom your Cocker Spaniel at home (or any dog), I’ve assembled a list of my favorite grooming tools and brushes for dogs.
How to Care For Your Dog’s Skin at Home
There are things you can and should do regularly for your dog’s health as it pertains to the skin. These are things I do and recommend to all dog moms and dads:
- Proper grooming, brushing, and bathing. Not all shampoos are created equal. Here are some of my favorite dog brushes.
- Touch your dog daily for any new lumps and bumps. Log them into your DogMinder, use calipers to measure them, and report anything suspicious, fast-growing, or those that change color.
- Bathe your dog regularly but avoid over-bathing, which can strip your dog’s hair of its natural oils. This means dryness, itching, and irritation.
- Feed your dog a healthy, nutritious, filler-free, preservative-free diet. The food that is best for your dog is the one that works. Here are my dog food recommendations.
- Check for ticks and fleas regularly. Avoid chemicals and consider chemical-free alternatives.
- Use dog-friendly sunscreen if your dog is exposed to the sun for long periods of time.
- Use a sweater or coat for cooler months. My dog loves to wear doggy pajamas indoors.
- Keep handy canine skin care products on hand. Some of my favorites are:
Promotes long-term skin health
Made in the USA, easy to tote around and use. Soothing CBD ointment soothes cracked paws, dry noses, and irritated skin. A must-have for your canine first aid kit and for year-round use.
Creates an invisible barrier on paws
We’ve used this for decades. Musher’s Secret is a 100% natural blend of food-grade waxes and oils with vitamin E to protect and heal paws.
Protects from the sun without feeling greasy
Epi-Pet’s sunscreen for dogs is FDA-compliant and helps protect your dog’s skin from the sun. Developed by a veterinarian and easy to spray on.
Soothing relief for hot spots and more
Made in the USA using the Zymox LP3 enzyme system, this product contains no antibiotics. It won’t sting or irritate and contains 0.5% hydrocortisone.
Safe and effective with plant-based ingredients
Designed to be gentle and contains nothing harsh to dry out your dog’s skin. The conditioner can be left in and used while the coat is dry as well. A must-have for your dog’s bathtime.