Does your dog have a skin tag?
Perhaps you’re grooming the dog, and the brush snags on something. You part the fur to discover a teardrop-shaped fleshy lump dangling from his skin. It feels soft enough, and it looks like his skin, but people are cautioned to be vigilant for skin lumps and bumps. Should you be worried?
For once, this is a condition that is rarely of serious concern. Skin tags can look dramatic but are not cancerous. The largest one I’ve seen was attached to a Great Dane’s elbow — it was the size of a hamster! The biggest problem they pose is getting caught in a collar or comb, and so some (not all) skin tags benefit from removal.
Skin tags are rarely of serious concern in themselves, but there is a danger if a more sinister lump is misidentified. If you are scratching your head wondering whether to act, here is your Skin Tag 101.
What Do Skin Tags Look Like?
They can range from a barely visible, spiky spot to a large, dangly, lobe-like structure.
Small skin tags are often likened to warts, but this is where it’s important to recognize a difference. This is because warts develop differently from skin tags and in rare circumstances can become cancerous — whereas skin tags are innocent and always will be.
To spot the different, know that warts sit on the skin’s surface, like a button on a shirt, whereas skin tags tend to dangle. Warts may also be a different color, whereas skin tags are, well, the same color as the dog’s skin.
What Causes Skin Tags?
Breeds such as Cocker Spaniels and Kerry blue terriers are more prone to skin tags than other breeds, with a genetic component at play. They’re more common in older dogs (just as in people). Also, skin tags more commonly grow on elbows, flanks and legs, although no one knows why.
A little more is known about why skin tags develop in people, where the risk factors include:
- Chaffing and irritation, such as where skin rubs together
- High levels of growth hormone in the bloodstream (people suffering from acromegaly)
- A form of diabetes associated with insulin resistance
- Human papilloma virus
This last one, papilloma virus, is especially interesting because dogs can catch canine papilloma virus, but the result looks more like warts rather than skin tags.
The papilloma virus doesn’t need direct contact and can survive on surfaces, so when a young, inquisitive dog comes sniffing along, he can potentially infect himself. These warts grow around the muzzle, lips and even on the tongue. Papilloma warts are quite distinctive, look like tiny cauliflowers and can be bright white in color — whereas skin tags are, again, skin-colored.
Should I Be Worried?
If what your dog has is genuinely a skin tag, then no, there’s no need to worry. The trick is to know when the dangler could be something more serious.
The signs that a skin lump could be cancerous include:
- Rapid growth
- Different pigment color than the skin
- Thickening around the base of the lump
- Pain associated with the lump
- Different texture from the surrounding skin
- Irritation or itchiness
If the dangler ticks any of these boxes, get it checked by a veterinarian. If it’s soft and literally like an extra bit of skin, chances are it’s a skin tag (but get a vet check just to be sure).
What If the Skin Tag Needs Removal?
If the skin tags catch on a collar or bleed when you brush them, then get them removed. This can be done in 1 of 3 ways:
- Cryosurgery: This works best for small- to medium-sized skin tags. The skin tag is frozen with liquid nitrogen, and over 7–10 days it dies and drops off. The dog may try to lick or chew the area after, so he’ll need to probably wear an Elizabethan collar (a.k.a. the cone of shame).
- Surgery: My Great Dane patient’s skin tag was too big for cryosurgery or thread ligation, and it was a simple procedure to remove the lump by cutting it off at the base under local anesthetic and place a couple of sutures across the incision.
- Thread Ligation: This involves tying thread tightly across the base of the skin tag so as to cut off its blood supply. As the days go by, it dies and falls off.
As with any intervention, there’s a slight risk of secondary infection. Be vigilant for any discharges or bad smells. But, overall, your dog should be ready for a snag-free brushing experience.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Oct. 13, 2018.