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petplan pet insurance presents: a primer on puppy strangles

  • Dr. Kim
  • Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on
    Staff Veterinarian and Pet Health Writer of Petplan

I got a text message a couple of months ago from an old family friend who was in a panic about her soon-to-be adopted puppy. Her puppy still lived with his mom, and though he didn't even have a name yet, my friend was worried that he might not make it to her house.  She described his symptoms and I knew right away that it must be juvenile cellulitis, more commonly called puppy strangles.

While there’s a lot we still don’t know about the condition, puppy strangles seems to be caused by an overactive immune system. It occurs in puppies between 3 weeks and 4 months old, and while it can happen in any puppy, Golden Retrievers, Dachshunds, Gordon Setters, and Huskies seem to be predisposed. The symptoms of strangles are pretty classic; it starts with sudden swelling of the muzzle and eyelids. The swelling gives way to pustules, which cover the affected areas, including the muzzle and area around the eyes as well as the ear flaps.  As the pustules grow, they rupture, bleed, and crust over. This all makes for a very unsightly puppy!

In addition to the skin changes, the lymph nodes will enlarge and affected puppies may be feverish and lethargic. Some pups will also have swollen, painful joints. Severe cases can quickly become life threatening if untreated.

Diagnosing puppy strangles can generally be done during a physical exam, and care must be taken to not confuse this condition with other fungal or parasitic diseases. Both a skin scrape and a fungal culture should be performed to rule out mange mites or ringworm. Some veterinarians will also choose to take a sample from the swollen lymph nodes to make sure there is no accompanying bacterial infection.

It is important to rule out other underlying diseases before starting treatment, because treatment centers on suppressing the affected puppy’s overactive immune system. This is done using high-dose steroids like prednisone. Some puppies will also need antibiotics to treat secondary infections that develop. Having dog insurance from Petplan pet insurance can help you manage the costs of caring for your best friend during this time.

If a puppy has lost fur on his face from the swelling and pustules, it can take a little time for the hair to re-grow, but generally, puppies respond well to treatment and recover in about two weeks. 

Have you ever dealt with puppy strangles? Share your experience with us in the comments.

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Posted by Susan Green
on May 19 2017 21:15

My heart bleeds for thes pups and their owners. So far, I am thankful, but I am anxious. Four weeks ago, our puppy, 12 wks, was at vet for shots. Vet felt bumps on his ears; did not know what they were; they were and still are, under the skin and hair; no eruptions through the skin; no pustules. Vet showed other docs in office; they had no idea. Puppy was positive for Giardia at the time; treated successfully, per fecal sample on 5/12. On the 5/12 visit, vet said "puppy strangles" based on the bumps had grown a bit. Prednisone was prescribed. Prednisone has not been given, as of today, 5/19. This puppy has always had a great appetite, is gaining weight, runs and plays until it wears me out! I examine his body several times a day; no pain anywhere, no swollen glands that I can feel. No nothing that would indicate strangles.

Posted by Wendy Bond
on February 19 2017 16:27

We are dealing with Puppy Strangles in our new baby chocolate lab now. We hope the steroid treatment will work- on our second try as when we tapered off the steroids her glands became swollen again and she developed more ulcers. Round 2 with a stronger dose of steroids and antibiotics.

Posted by Canceria James
on July 01 2016 21:00

We got our American Bully puppy when he was 7 weeks. After a week, I woke up to notice that his neck looked swollen. My husband and I assumed that he might've been stung by a bee and thought that the swelling would go down. As the day went on, I noticed that he wasn't himself. He didn't eat much that day and wasn't playful. We took him in to see the vet. The vet thought that he could've been stung but also said it could be puppy strangles. She gave him a shot of Benadryl and after 20 minutes, the swelling, which was also around his mouth, hadn't gone down. She prescribed Gunner Predisone which he is supposed to take for two weeks before his checkup. Two days after visiting the vet, we noticed "pimples" around his muzzle. The next day, they began to burst. So along with the lethargy, he was now bleeding in various spots around the muzzle. We decided to take him back just to be sure that he wasn't in any danger and to see if we could do something to alleviate the pain around his muzzle. Once the vet saw him, she immediately suggested an antibiotic so that the open sores wouldn't become infected. She suggested that we take a warm wash cloth and hold it on his muzzle to loosen up the crusting that was around his muzzle. Our baby is now taking the steroid and amoxicillin. He wants no part of the wet wash cloth on his muzzle so I don't push the issue. It now seems that no "pimples" are bursting and that the sores are developing scabs. The swelling around his neck had gone down. We are hoping that within the next couple of days, we will see that the steroid is also improving his muzzle. We can't wait for a full recovery so that he can get back to his playful self and so that we can get him into some puppy training classes.

Posted by Gina Eshenbaugh
on April 25 2016 14:01

We brought home our 5th gen Newf when he was 8 weeks old. When we arrived at our breeder I had noticed that he bumps in his ears bilaterally. A week later they looked a little larger at his vet exam and vaccinations. He was vaccinated on a Saturday and within 3 days of vaccinations we could see the decline. He quit eating or drinking. I reached out to our breeder and by the following Saturday he was in for an emergency appointment with our vet. I believe that he was initially misdiagnosed at his 6 week visit when the breeder stated that he presented with an droop of his right eye. The breeder's vet diagnosed this as entropy. And even after consistent treatment of said eye there has been zero improvement of the condition. Our puppy was given subcutaneous fluids at the vet and an injection of antibiotics.The treatment plan was standard and aggressive. Prednisone for 6 weeks tapering off after the 3rd week and an antibiotic, Cephalexin. He showed mild improvement over the first 48 hours and plateaued and seemed to worsen. I was phoning our vet daily. Devouring information, researching homeopathic and at home remedies to help alleviate his pain. The pustles grew worse on his muzzle and nose, they ruptured in his mouth and ears. He reeked of infection. We are bathing him daily in epsom salt and lavender baths, warm compresses on the ears, mandible, and nose, special diet, burrow's solution, peroxide ear washes, massages. My heart breaks to see him in such pain.

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