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Foreign Bodies in the Skin and Coat of Pets

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Foreign bodies such as brambles, plant awns, small sticks, etc, often cause skin and coat problems in dogs and cats.  These types of materials can work their way into the skin, often between the toes, or into the eyes or ears.  The foreign material then acts as an irritant and source of infection, possibly making healing difficult.  Foreign bodies can also create hair mats that lead to secondary “hot spots,” also called moist dermatitis.

Many plant seeds are covered with spiny material that easily sticks to hair, especially between the toes, or in folds of the skin.  Bits of plastic, wire, etc, can also have sharp, prickly edges that stick to hair.  These materials can work their way into other areas, such as the ears, vulva, or sheath of the penis.  Dogs and cats with long hair coats, as well as those that spend time outside in fields and woods, are most at risk.

Foreign materials stuck in the hair cause it to knot up and lead to annoying and irritating mats.  They can also work their way into the skin or into the mucous tissues around the mouth, eyes, and genitals.  In response to irritation, the surrounding tissue tends to grow around the foreign material, creating an area of inflammation known as a granuloma.  The foreign body serves as a continuing source of irritation and a safe haven for bacteria, so that the area does not heal normally and often has a discharge that contains blood or pus.  Depending on the area involved, the ongoing infection and inflammation can lead to lameness, eye problems, ear infections, or urinary tract infections.

Diagnosis is based on thorough examination of the affected area.  Sedation or general anesthesia may be needed.  Your veterinarian may take a scraping of the area or attempt to remove fluid for examination under the microscope.  In some cases, a biopsy may be recommended to confirm that the granulomatous area is secondary inflammation due to a foreign body, rather than a cancerous growth.

In mild cases, the hair mats can be clipped and any underlying hot spots on the skin treated.  In more severe cases, the area may need to be vigorously flushed and cleaned to dislodge the foreign material.  Again, sedation or anesthesia may be needed.  If a granuloma has formed, it may need surgical removal.  Follow-up treatment can include repeated cleaning, foot soaks, and/or oral antibiotics to control secondary infection.

Prevention involves frequent grooming, especially after pets have been outdoors.  Regular brushing can remove most foreign bodies before they cause a problem.

Q&A

What foreign bodies can cause skin problems for my pet?

Foreign materials such as brambles, plant awns, and small sticks can irritate the skin by lodging in the hair, especially between the toes, or in the ears or around the genitals.

How is a foreign body diagnosed?

Diagnosis is based on a thorough physical examination, possibly with the pet under sedation or anesthesia.  A biopsy may be needed if a granuloma has formed to rule out a cancerous growth.

How are foreign bodies in my pet treated?

Treatment is directed at removing the foreign body and addressing underlying infection.  If an inflammatory granuloma has formed, surgical removal may be needed.

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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