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Sebaceous Cyst: The Canine Cyst You Should NEVER Squeeze

By Dr. Becker

In the final segment of this 3-part video series, Dr. Karen Becker talks about more benign lumps and bumps, specifically, sebaceous cysts.

In part 1 and part 2 of this series, I discussed benign growths like cutaneous papillomas, otherwise known as viral warts. We covered sebaceous adenomas, which are also called oil gland masses. We discussed meibomian gland adenomas, or eyelid masses, as well as lipomas, which are benign fatty masses.

Today I want to finish up with a discussion of yet another type of benign lump you might find on your dog, sebaceous cysts. In case you're wondering what the difference is between a sebaceous adenoma and a sebaceous cyst, a cyst is a sac filled with fluid, gas or semi-solid material. An adenoma, by contrast, is a mass of tissue.

Sebaceous Cysts

Sebaceous cysts can occur in any breed of dog. They also occur in cats, but much less commonly. Like the other lumps and bumps I've discussed in this series, sebaceous cysts are benign and nothing to worry about in terms of cancer. They occur under the skin, and they generally behave in one of three ways:

  • They erupt
  • They get walled off
  • They resolve on their own

If a sebaceous cyst erupts, it means it came to a head, opened up, and the contents oozed out. Sometimes these eruptions can lead to infection. The ooze is usually a fairly gross material resembling cottage cheese, or sometimes a thick, black, waxy looking substance. I don't recommend you squeeze these cysts, because this can cause them to implode, which can lead to cellulitis (a bacterial skin infection) which may require treatment with antibiotics. This is the least optimal outcome if your dog has one of these cysts.

I do recommend you keep an erupted sebaceous cyst clean. Disinfect several times a day, and prevent your pet from licking the area. Most of these types of cysts will heal on their own if they are regularly disinfected and not fussed with by your dog.

If sebaceous cysts under the skin become walled off, which means they feel like little peas, just leave them be. They won't go away because they're walled, but your dog's body will just ignore them. Dogs prone to developing sebaceous cysts can acquire them at any age, and they can be an ongoing issue throughout your pet's life. Some dogs get one or two cysts at a time, others can have five or six on an ongoing and recurring basis.

In vet school I was advised to remove sebaceous cysts because I could make money with the procedure and dog owners are generally happy to have the things gone.  However, as I discussed in parts 1 and 2 of this series, I don't recommend removal of any benign cyst 'just because.' Removal is only necessary if the cyst recurs and is prone to infection and/or if your dog's quality of life is impaired by the presence of a cyst.

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Preventing Sebaceous Cysts

There are a few things you can do as a pet owner to reduce the possibility your dog will develop sebaceous cysts.

Keeping your pet brushed and well-groomed will keep the sebum flowing out of the oil gland and hair follicle, which will help prevent the oil buildup and entrapment under the follicle that leads to cyst formation.

Optimizing your dog's fatty acid intake is another important step. Essential fatty acids are delicate (easily destroyed by heat and processing), and should be replaced especially for dogs eating only dry food. If your dog is fed raw, essential fatty acids can be optimized. I recommend adding krill oil or another omega-3 fatty acid. You can also add coconut oil. Both these oils help normalize sebum production.

If you discover a sebaceous cyst on your dog, there's no reason to make an emergency visit to your veterinarian. I do recommend you have it checked out to make sure it's benign, but there's no reason to panic.

Your vet can confirm the mystery lump is indeed a benign sebaceous cyst through cytology, meaning he or she will extract a few cells from the lump, look at them under a microscope (or send them elsewhere for examination), and ultimately assure you there's nothing to worry about.

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