Treating Lymphedema in Dogs

James Glover
by James Glover
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QuestionMy 6 year old boxer was diagnosed with lymphedema of his right rear leg. His leg is 10 times the size of his others. His appetite is huge, but why does he continue to lose weight? I really hate the thought of putting him down, but he's looking really bad and can hardly walk. (mike pires - North Carolina)


Lymphedema is a lymphatic obstruction which leads to localized fluid retention in the affected limb. The symptoms include a heavy swollen limb and severe fatigue, sometimes accompanied by discoloration of the overlying skin. Lymphedema is very unusual in Boxers, and the causes and possible modes of inheritance are not well studied. In general, dogs with lymphedema are generally healthy but suffer from increased risk of infection and delayed healing after injury at the affected site. However, in serious cases lymphedema can even prevent a dog from standing unaided.

Firstly, make sure you are feeding your dog lots of high quality foods, which should be high in both protein and carbohydrate to maintain his energy levels; and that he has constant access to fresh water. In addition, make sure that his diet contains only natural foods and that his environment is free of fumes, dust and plant pollen. Keeping your dog's diet and environment will reduce the amount of work his lymphatic system needs to do and therefore improve the chances of reducing the symptoms.

Unfortunately there is as yet no curative treatment - the only treatment being that which minimizes symptoms. The primary treatment is to administer compression bandages to the affected area to help reduce localized swelling. This can be a problem because bandages will need changed regularly to prevent any possibility of infection on the affected skin. In the same way, frequent gentle massaging of the area can also help to reduce swelling and improve fluid circulation. There is some indication that a group of drugs called Benzopyrones may help to reduce the swelling. In any event, a combination of some or all treatments is recommended to have maximum impact.

Disclaimer: This service is meant to provide advice only and is not meant to replace an appointment with a registered veterinarian. Users should always seek a second opinion. Unfortunately we are only able to answer several questions per week so not everyone gets a published answer. And, unfortunately we can't answer by email.
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Added on Feb 18th, 2010
I have a 2 year old German Shepherd, Merrick, affected by this disorder. He was born with it, with a huge swollen rear leg. He now only presents swelling occasionally, and usually only if he injures himself. He requires no special care (just an eye out for infection.) At 2 years old he almost looks like a "normal" Shepherd with big feet. :)
There is no need to put your pup to sleep. Lymphedema is not painful (I do think the swelling can be uncomfortable in the summer) and it should lessen as the pup becomes older.
Massaging the leg in an upward motion can help the pup absorb some of the excess fluid. I did this for the first year of Merrick's life. I don't recommend wrapping, as this can cause more complications and possible circulation issues if wrapped too tightly.
A high quality dog food should be all you need to feed. Look for corn, soy and wheat free food.
Hope some of this helps!
Julie & Merrick