Does your dog have a swollen lip? Seeing your dog’s lips swelling can be a major concern. Is it an emergency? What may have caused it? Does it require treatment? There are a variety of reasons why your dog’s lips may swell, from benign issues such as canine acne to more serious allergic reactions that require immediate treatment. Learn about the most common causes behind swollen lips in dogs and what you can do to treat them.
What Is Swelling?
Swelling is the filling of fluid within cells. It is called edema when it is severe. Swelling can occur for many reasons, including allergic reactions that create fluid buildup, cells or debris becoming trapped within the tissue when fighting infection, or even due to body processes such as organ failure that can affect the transfer of fluids between tissues, leading to fluid backup. Swelling, however, isn’t always a negative. In the case of healing wounds, swelling helps bring protective cells and nutrients needed to repair damaged tissue.
Signs of an Emergency
Minor lip swelling may not need immediate attention or only require home care. However, there are some signs that indicate the swelling needs to be seen by a veterinarian immediately. These include swelling that is affecting your dog’s ability to breathe, eat, or drink. Other signs include swelling that is spreading to the rest of the face, head, or neck. Additionally, if the area is very bothersome or painful to your dog, or is oozing fluid or debris, it needs to be seen. If you notice these signs or the swelling onset is very rapid, seek emergency care.
Your Dog has a Swollen Lip – Causes
While this list is not exhaustive, these are the most common causes and symptoms of lip swelling in dogs:
Insect Bites, Stings, and Allergies
Bites and stings from insects are one of the most common causes of swelling, including swelling of the lips in dogs. You may notice your dog had been chasing (or attempting to eat) a bee earlier, made a sudden yelping noise, or showed signs of swelling after being outdoors. In addition, there may be a visible stinger, puncture mark, or other raised center spot in the middle of the swelling.
In most cases, signs alone are enough to figure out that the lip swelling is from a bite or sting. Your vet can also rule out other issues through a basic examination of the affected area. At home, giving an over the counter antihistamine such as diphenhydramine can be enough to reduce swelling and help the area heal. In the case of allergic reactions or severe facial swelling, injected antihistamines and IV fluids are needed. Antibiotics may also be prescribed if the initial bite becomes infected.
Preventing an insect bite can be hard, however, if you will be traveling somewhere with lots of bugs, having an antihistamine on hand can prevent severe swelling. Keeping your dog on leash, and avoiding woody or brushy areas where insects may hide can also reduce the chances of a sting.
Injury and Wounds
Injuries to the face can lead to swollen lips, especially if the nose, mouth, or chin is affected. In addition to swelling, you’ll likely see other signs such as redness in the affected area. The area may also be painful or hot to the touch. If the wound appears minor, home care can help it heal. Keep the area clean and dry, and use an Elizabethan (cone) collar to keep your dog from rubbing at the spot.
If you suspect the injury may be more severe, such as trauma to the face or jaw, or the wound is larger than a few centimeters, veterinary care is best. Your vet can sedate your dog to check for bone breaks or damage to the teeth beneath the lips. They can also safely clean, suture, and add drains to any large wounds as needed. Pain medications and antibiotics can help reduce pain and prevent infection.
Keeping your dog out of brushy areas, leashed or in a fenced yard when unsupervised, and keeping sharp objects out of your dog’s path can help prevent injury. Checking toys for any sharp pieces or parts that may splinter off can also help reduce the chance of an injury to the mouth, gums, and lips.
Bacterial, Fungal, and Yeast Infections
Swollen lips in dogs may also be caused by organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and yeast. Breaks in the skin can allow these organisms to take hold, and the body’s immune response can lead to swelling. In addition, the area may have a strange rash, visible oozing of debris, smell, or start off as a small spot of redness that quickly spreads outward.
Diagnosing infections can be done by both visual examination as well as a few tests. Visibly infected wounds can be treated with cleaning and antibiotics as needed. For fungal or yeast infections, a skin scraping of the area can be sent to a lab to be monitored on a growth medium. Some fungal infections, such as ringworm, will also light up under a Wood’s lamp test.
Treatment depends greatly on the underlying cause, but in most cases, oral medications and medicated shampoos are best for fungal and yeast infections. Your vet may also recommend an Elizabethan (cone) collar to keep your dog from rubbing the spot. As some fungi and yeast are highly contagious, it’s also a good idea to keep your dog away from other pets and people to prevent spread. Thoroughly wash clothing, hands, bedding, and other items that come in contact with your dog.
Food allergies can sometimes lead to allergic reactions that affect both the skin and GI tract. In addition to GI symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and changes in appetite, lip redness and swelling may be present. You may also notice small bumps around your dog’s face after they lick their lips. Food allergies can be tricky to diagnose and treat as every dog is different. The most common allergens include meats such as beef, chicken, and lamb. Grain allergies are less common, but can include wheat, corn, and soy.
Your vet will likely recommend a food trial that involves removing all potential allergens and feeding a hypoallergenic diet to see if symptoms resolve. From there, your vet will have you introduce one new food at a time. If symptoms reappear, that ingredient is the likely culprit. The downside to food trials is it can take several weeks to months per food item before results are seen. In addition to changing your dog’s diet, an over the counter allergy medication may also help.
Similar to food allergies, environmental allergies can also cause swelling, including on the face and lips. In most cases, however, environmental allergies cause whole-body reactions, including redness, swelling, itching, and bumps or hives appearing on the skin. Your dog may also have red and itchy eyes, a runny nose, and can cough or sneeze. Dust allergies, chemical allergies, and allergies to pollens and grasses are the most common. Short-haired dogs and some breeds such as bully breeds are also more prone to allergies.
Like food allergies, finding the culprit behind an environmental allergen involves trial and error. Your vet will first rule out any more serious causes such as infections caused by bacteria, fungi, and yeast. An over the counter allergy medication can also be tried to see if it helps improve symptoms. In more severe cases, prescription allergy medications and steroids such as prednisone can be used to stop the allergic response. For cases that don’t respond well to medications, a referral to a veterinary dermatologist for specific testing and allergy shots can help.
If the allergen cause is known, prevention is the easiest way to avoid an allergic response. Keeping your dog in a well-ventilated area, avoiding chemicals that cause reactions, and wiping down paws and bellies after being outside can all reduce allergies.
Caused by underlying inflammation, canine acne can lead to swollen lips in dogs. You may also notice small bumps, pustules, or other abnormalities around the face and lips. It’s unknown why dogs get acne, however, some dogs with extra skin flaps or brachycephalic breeds are more predisposed.
Visual inspection is the easiest way to diagnose canine acne. Your vet will also likely want to take a skin scraping of the area to check for secondary infections that need treatment. From there, treatments include topical medications such as benzoyl peroxide, oral steroids, and medications to treat any secondary symptoms. Keeping the face and any skin folds clean and dry may help reduce the recurrence of canine acne.
Gum and Dental Disease
Sometimes, lip swelling in dogs isn’t caused by an issue on the lips. Instead, underlying tooth and gum disease may lead to wider spread inflammation or may give the lips an appearance of swelling when the gums are swollen instead. Gum diseases such as gingivitis, excessive tartar buildup, and tooth-root abscesses may all cause swelling that can spread to the lips. Your dog may also be reluctant to eat, have bad breath, paw at their face or mouth, rub their face against the ground, or lick their lips obsessively.
Examination of the lips, mouth, teeth, gums, and throat is the best way to find a problem. If your veterinarian recommends a dental cleaning to remove tartar and reduce gum inflammation, they may also recommend X-rays while your dog is under anesthesia to check for abscessed teeth that need to be removed. In most cases, dental cleaning can reduce most of the inflammation present. However, additional treatment such as antibiotics, pain meds, or steroids may be beneficial in helping the teeth and gums heal.
Regular brushing, dental chews and treats, and examination of your dog’s mouth can reduce the chances of severe gum disease and inflammation. A yearly dental cleaning is also recommended to help keep the mouth and gums healthy, and to catch any tumors or growths on the gum early.
Tumors and Growths
Tumors of the face, gums, salivary glands, and nose can all appear similar to lip swelling. Growths can be benign or malignant and may appear rapidly or grow suddenly. Other symptoms include ulceration of the skin over the growth, pain, redness, and discharge. If you notice a sudden growth or one that is rapidly growing or irregular in shape, it’s best to seek out veterinary care.
Your vet will start by taking a biopsy of the growth to check for cancerous cells. Depending on the location and cause behind it, removal may be recommended. In the case of hard to remove or non-cancerous growths, your vet may recommend monitoring it. Other treatments include steroids, antibiotics, and wound care if the growth has ulcerated.
Some breeds are prone to a genetic illness called craniomandibular osteopathy. A disease that mostly affects puppies, it can cause swelling of the face including the lips, mouth, and jaw. Your puppy may also find eating painful, drool, or paw at the face. While any dog can be affected, Retrievers, Great Danes, and some terrier breeds are the most affected.
As this is an inflammatory illness, anti-inflammatory medications such as NSAIDs like carprofen and grapiprant can help. In more severe cases, steroids such as prednisone may be used to help stop the inflammatory response. In most cases, the swelling will eventually resolve on its own as your puppy reaches maturity.
While swollen lips can be a scary, and serious, situation, most cases can easily be treated. If you do notice your dog’s lips swelling, be sure to monitor how quickly and severely the swelling occurs. Keeping an eye on any symptoms and taking care to treat them quickly can help keep your dog from experiencing discomfort.