What is lymphedema?

Lymph is a clear watery fluid that is collected from tissues throughout the body and returned to the blood by way of the lymphatic vessels, as part of normal circulation. In lymphedema there is abnormal lymph flow, so that lymph fluids accumulate and cause swelling in the affected tissue.

Primary or inherited lymphedema is caused by abnormal development of the lymph vessels or nodes and has been reported in the breeds listed below. Secondary lymphedema can occur in any breed if there is obstruction of lymph vessels due to tumours, inflammation, surgery, etc.

How is lymphedema inherited?

In some breeds, the mode of inheritance has been shown to be autosomal dominant with variable expressivity.

What breeds are affected by lymphedema?

Primary lymphedema has been reported in the Belgian Tervuren, borzoi, English bulldog, German shepherd, German short-haired pointer, Great Dane, Labrador retriever, old English sheepdog, poodle and rottweiler.

For many breeds and many disorders, the studies to determine the mode of inheritance or the frequency in the breed have not been carried out, or are inconclusive. We have listed breeds for which there is a consensus among those investigating in this field and among veterinary practitioners, that the condition is significant in this breed.

What does lymphedema mean to your dog & you?

The hind legs are most commonly affected, although front legs, abdomen, tail and ears can be affected too. The skin looks normal but has a thickened spongy feel, and if you press it, your fingers will leave dents.

Skin that is swollen due to lymphedema is susceptible to bacterial infection and delayed healing after injury, but otherwise your dog will be generally healthy.

How is lymphedema diagnosed?

Diagnosis is made based on physical examination, laboratory tests to rule out other causes of edema, and a skin biopsy. This is a simple procedure done with local anesthetic, in which your veterinarian removes a small sample of your dog's skin for examination by a veterinary pathologist. The biopsy will show changes in the skin consistent with this condition. Your veterinarian may also recommend lymphangiography - the process of x-raying the lymph vessels after injecting dye, in order to identify any abnormalities.

For the veterinarian: Rule out other causes of obstructive, inflammatory, and hypoproteinemic edema.

How is lymphedema treated?

Mild cases of lymphedema may come and go, or persist without any adverse consequences for your dog's health. More serious cases may require bandaging to reduce the swelling due to fluid (lymph) build-up, or reconstructive surgery.


Copyright © 1998 Canine Inherited Disorders Database. All rights reserved.
Revised: October 30, 2001.

This database is funded jointly by the Sir James Dunn Animal Welfare Centre at the Atlantic Veterinary College, University of Prince Edward Island, and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.