Lymphedema - Page 1

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By: Dr. Bari Spielman

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Lymphedema is an abnormal accumulation of protein-rich lymph fluid into tissue spaces caused by obstruction of flow in lymphatic vessels or through lymph nodes. It may be primary or secondary. Primary/congenital lymphedema is usually present at birth or by several months of age.

Lymphedema is more common in dogs than cats and no sex predilection has been reported. It is often congenital in English bulldogs. Although lymphedema can affect all breeds, dogs with a familial predisposition include poodles, Labrador retrievers and Old English sheepdogs.

Causes of Primary Lymphedema

  • Idiopathic (unknown cause)
  • Hereditary/congenital malformation of the lymphatic system, which is the network of vessels that carries protein-rich lymph fluid through the body.

    Causes of Secondary Lymphedema

  • Secondary damage to lymphatic vessels or lymph nodes
  • Trauma
  • Infection/inflammation
  • Neoplasia (cancer)
  • Radiation therapy

    What to Watch For

  • Swelling of the legs that typically starts at the foot and advances toward the body, which can occur in one or multiple limbs, most commonly in the hind legs

  • Swelling that may affect the underside of the chest, abdomen, ears and tail

  • Uncommonly, lameness and pain


  • Complete blood cell count (CBC)
  • Biochemical profile
  • Urinalysis
  • Heartworm test
  • Fine-needle aspirate of the affected tissue
  • Lymphangiography, which is the injection of dye directly into the lymphatic system
  • Chest and abdominal X-rays, although often within normal limits, may be of benefit in ruling out other disorders


    There is no curative therapy, treatment is aimed at minimizing the symptoms.

  • Pressure wraps
  • Warm water massage
  • Antibiotics for secondary infections
  • Benzopyrones, a group of drugs that may help reduce swelling

    Home Care and Prevention

    Puppies with severe lymphedema may die with or without treatment. Administer all medication and follow all recommendations as directed by your veterinarian. If your pet's condition is not improving or getting worse, seek veterinary attention at once.

    There is no preventative care for primary lymphedema.

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