What are Skin Tags?
Skin tags in dogs are a type of growth comprised of fibrous tissue that can appear as a lump or bump. This connective tissue is made up of collagen proteins, and is essential in the formation of such specialized tissues as bone and cartilage, as well as providing the connective support for the various organs and systems in the body. While some skin tags are considered to be a type of benign cancer called a fibroma, most are deemed non-cancerous, and can be referred to by several names. These include acrochordons, fibrovascular papillomas, collagenous hamartoma, hyperplastic or hypertrophic scar, and fibroepithelial polyp.
Just like their human owners, dogs can develop small skin lumps on the surface or just under their skin. These skin tags often appear as a dog ages, and though they can be unsightly, they are quite harmless. Very often, these growths are connected to the body by a stalk-like tissue.
Symptoms of Skin Tags in Dogs
Skin tags tend to grow slowly and can take a long time to be noticeable. They are located on the skin, or just under the skin, and can vary in size and appearance. While harmless, they can cause distress if they grow too large or in a location that compromises your dog’s normal daily activity, or if they become damaged, in which case they can bleed and possibly become infected. Signs your dog may have a skin tag include:
- Stalk-like growths
- Growths with a wart-like surface
- Single or multiple growths
- Growths that include hair follicles
- Flattened plaque-like growths
- Growths that can bleed if damaged
- Secondary infections of growths
Skin tags are often referred to as hamartomas, which are described as a nodule of redundant tissue. Two types of these are:
Fibroadnexal Hamartomas – Also called collagenous hamartomas, these are the common skin tags seen in many dogs. Often, these are hairless growths, and form near the lower limb regions and pressure points.
Follicular Hamartomas – This is a type of fibroadnexal hamartoma, and more rare in dogs. These growths are often found in multiples, and can be characterized by flattened masses with thick hairs.
Causes of Skin Tags in Dogs
Skin tags are composed of fibrous tissues made up of collagen proteins. This fibrous tissue is a normal component of the body, and creates the supportive connections and tissues that hold the organs and body systems into place. The cells responsible for the production of the fibers that makes this connective tissue are called fibroblasts, and if these cells are overactive, this can cause an abundance of fibrous tissue, resulting in a slow-growing mass near or on the skin.
Though skin tags can appear on any breed of dog, there seems to be an increased risk in larger breeds. Skin tags more commonly appear in dogs that are middle-aged and older.
Diagnosis of Skin Tags in Dogs
If you see a growth on your dog, it will be vitally important to determine if the growth is a harmless skin tag, or if it is a tumor or other growth that is signaling a more serious problem, such as cancer. While it is common to see growths appear on aging dogs, monitoring certain factors can be helpful to you and your veterinarian when making a determination about your dog’s condition. Once you see a bump or lump on or under the skin, take notes on the appearance, size and location of the bump. Taking pictures with an object of a fixed size next to it, such as a coin or ruler, can help to determine growth when compared to a later picture. Never use scissors or a razor to remove any hair near the growth, but instead, use electric clippers or a beard trimmer to prevent damage to the growth.
If you notice certain characteristics about the growth, you should not delay in seeking a medical opinion. These can include a rapidly growing lump, a dark colored growth, or a bump near your dog’s ear, nose, mouth, or mammary glands. Other signs concurrent with the growth can also cause alarm, such as changes in appetite, weight and energy levels, signs of discomfort and pain, or vomiting and diarrhea.
Be sure to tell your veterinarian details of all symptoms you’ve noticed, including any changes you’ve seen in the growth. Your veterinarian will examine your dog and evaluate the lump. A fine needle aspirate may be performed to collect a sample to analyze. Sometimes a biopsy is recommended to determine if the growth is benign or malignant, and this might include removal of the growth.
Treatment of Skin Tags in Dogs
While some skin tags can shrink in size over time, most of them will remain unless they are surgically removed. Surgery to remove these growths is optional, as often skin tags cause no harm to your dog. However, removal can be recommended in certain cases, such as to confirm a diagnosis with a biopsy, or if the size or location of the growth is causing physical problems, pain, or secondary infections.
Another method of removal is through cryosurgery. Nitrous oxide or liquid nitrogen is used to destroy the unwanted tissue by freezing it. The tissue then falls off or dissolves within four weeks. This procedure can be attractive for those dogs who are at an increased risk of complications due to anesthesia, as only a mild local anesthetic may be needed. The process is only temporarily painful during the freezing with no pain during recovery. Sometimes, the first treatment is not sufficient and may be repeated within two to three weeks.
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Recovery of Skin Tags in Dogs
While occasionally skin tags can shrink on their own, more often they will be a harmless addition to your dog’s skin until removed. After any type of removal, prevent your dog from licking, chewing, or scratching at the area to prevent any further damage. An Elizabethan collar can be used. Keep the area clean and monitor it for changes. Be aware that once your dog has developed a skin tag, he may be more prone to develop others.
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Skin Tags Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
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