Puppy Strangles in Dogs

Katie Grzyb, DVM
By Katie Grzyb, DVM on Jun. 7, 2022
A female Golden Labrador Retriever puppy sitting on a rock in a public park while she looks away.

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What is Puppy Strangles in Dogs?

Puppy strangles is a rare skin condition most commonly diagnosed in puppies. It is also called juvenile cellulitis, sterile granulomatous dermatitis, or lymphadenitis.

Strangles is characterized by sudden-onset facial swelling (especially of the muzzle and eyelids) followed by swollen lymph nodes in the neck. As the lymph nodes become increasingly swollen, it might look like your puppy is being strangled. The condition also causes oozing, crusted, pimple-like lesions on the skin, which are usually painful.

 When the swelling first starts, many pet owners mistakenly assume that their puppy has been bit by a snake or spider. Regardless of the underlying cause, any significant swelling means that you should take your dog to the vet right away. In many cases, strangles can be life-threatening, if left untreated.

Strangles usually affects young dogs between the ages of 3 weeks to 6 months, but it has been diagnosed in dogs up to 4 years old.

Symptoms of Puppy Strangles in Dogs

Symptoms of puppy strangles may include:

  • Fever

  • Facial swelling

  • Lymph node enlargement (usually starting with the lymph nodes under the chin and in the neck area)

  • Joint swelling

  • Lethargy

  • Pain

  • Bleeding, crusted, oozing skin pustules (most commonly on the face, muzzle, and ears) but can also affect the paws, anus, and genital regions.

  • Loss of appetite

  • Decreased drinking

  • Hair loss

  • Limping/lameness

Causes of Puppy Strangles in Dogs

No one knows exactly what causes puppy strangles, but experts think it’s triggered by an inappropriate immune system reaction because it occurs most commonly in young dogs whose immune systems are not completely formed. It also tends to respond to high doses of steroids which work by suppressing the immune system.

There may also be a hereditary component because certain breeds—including Golden Retrievers, Gordon Setters, and Dachshunds—are more likely to develop it.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Puppy Strangles in Dogs

Your veterinarian will start by physically examining your dog and looking for symptoms such as symmetrical facial swelling, enlarged lymph nodes, fever, and crusted, painful, raised skin lesions. While these symptoms strongly point to strangles, your veterinarian will likely perform the following tests to further investigate:

  • Bloodwork, such as a complete blood count: Dogs with strangles often have an elevated white blood cell count and mild-to-moderate anemia (low red blood cell count).

  • Cytology of the skin lesions: This involves placing a glass slide directly on the oozing lesions and then examining the sample under a microscope (or sending it to a lab for assessment). The sample is used to determine whether the dog has developed a secondary bacterial infection because of having strangles.

  • Skin scrapings and hair pluck testing: These tests can help rule out mange, fungus, and ringworm, which are all other possible causes of skin lesions.

  • Bacterial or fungal cultures: These tests may be recommended to rule out infection.

  • Skin biopsy: This can provide a definitive diagnosis of puppy strangles because it checks for types of skin changes (such as granulomas and pyogranulomas) that are specific to this condition. But it is an aggressive test, and oftentimes the condition can be diagnosed and treated without it.

Treatment of Puppy Strangles in Dogs

Puppy strangles is painful and makes your dog vulnerable to bacterial infections. If such an infection spreads, or if your dog is in so much pain that it stops eating, strangles could become fatal.

Fortunately, treatment is very effective. Treatment for puppy strangles is aimed at calming your pet’s overactive immune response and relieving its inflammation. Your veterinarian will most likely prescribe Prednisone (a type of steroid) or another type of immunosuppressive medication like Cyclosporine.

Your dog may need to take high doses of steroids for several weeks or months during treatment, and the dose will need to be slowly tapered once the dog shows signs of improvement. Your dog will also need antibiotics if any of the skin lesions have become infected with bacteria. Your veterinarian might also prescribe a pain medication to ease your dog’s discomfort.

Recovery and Management of Puppy Strangles in Dogs

In most cases, dogs with puppy strangles will start to get better within a few days of starting treatment, but it may take 10 to 14 days for the condition to fully resolve. Note that some hair loss or skin scarring might be permanent. It is important to avoid popping any pustules as this can be painful to your dog and make it easier for a bacterial infection to set in.

There is no known way to prevent puppy strangles at this time, but once it is treated it usually does not flare up again.

Puppy Strangles in Dogs FAQs

Do puppies fully recover from puppy strangles?

Yes, with appropriate therapy, puppies will fully recover.

How does a puppy get puppy strangles?

Puppy strangles is idiopathic, meaning the cause is unknown. It is likely caused by an overreaction of the immune system because it tends to respond to high doses of steroids (which suppress the immune system).

Is puppy strangles contagious?

No, puppy strangles are not contagious to other animals or humans.

How long does it take puppy strangles to heal?

Complete resolution of symptoms—with treatment—is usually seen in 10 to 14 days, but in more severe cases it can be longer.

Featured Image: iStock.com/SolStock

Katie Grzyb, DVM


Katie Grzyb, DVM


Dr. Katie Grzyb received her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from Ross University in 2009. She continued her clinical training at...

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