The most common cause of facial swelling in pets is dental disease, which is usually easy to treat, according to Dr. Sandra Manfra, head of small animal surgery at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. However, other possible causes for that bump on Fluffy’s face range from insect bites to traumatic injury or tumors, so a visit to the veterinarian is in order to get the right diagnosis and treatment.
Dr. Manfra, who is one of the founders of the field of veterinary dentistry, says that dental problems, such as fractured teeth or periodontal disease, may lead to inflammation and infection and may show up as a sudden swelling of the face.
A fractured tooth will cause pain initially, but after the tooth’s supplying nerve dies, the pain goes away. The problem, however, does not. If the exposed pulp gets infected, the infection can travel through the tooth’s root and into the facial area, causing inflammation and swelling.
With periodontal disease, or gum disease, the gums separate from the teeth, leaving open pockets between the gums and teeth. Food debris collects in these pockets, and if the debris becomes trapped inside the pocket, infection can develop and spread from the tooth root into the facial area.
During an oral examination, a veterinarian will look for broken teeth, use a dental probe to check for periodontal pockets, and take dental X-rays to determine which tooth is the source of infection. A veterinarian can extract an infected tooth, or, if the owner chooses to save the tooth, a root canal may be performed.
If left untreated, an infected tooth can lead to more serious problems. Because of the location of the tooth roots, severe tooth infections can extend into the jaw bones, nasal cavity, and tissues surrounding the eyes.
Another familiar cause of swelling, especially in the summer, is insect bites. Like dental disease, insect bites cause sudden swelling on one side of the face. A veterinarian can treat bug bite swelling with antihistamines and anti-inflammatory steroids. As in humans, severe allergic reactions to insect bites in pets, though rare, can potentially obstruct the airways. In cases of serious allergic reaction, a veterinarian can administer epinephrine.
A more obvious cause of facial swelling is traumatic injury, such as a blow to the head or face. This is common when an animal gets hit by a car. One telltale sign of traumatic injury is bleeding accompanying the swelling. A veterinarian should examine any animal that suffers traumatic injury and take X-rays to look for bone fractures and other injuries.
A less common cause for facial swelling is tumors. Cancer is most commonly seen in middle-aged to older animals, but sometimes is diagnosed in younger animals. Dr. Manfra notes, “Often facial swelling caused by a tumor increases gradually, but it may seem sudden if owners do not notice it until it is large."
To diagnose oral tumors, a veterinarian will perform an oral examination (sometimes done with the animal under sedation or anesthesia) to look for growths in the mouth and take an X-ray to see if there is damage to underlying bones in the face. If a growth is found, the veterinarian will recommend a biopsy of the tumor. Depending on the type of tumor, treatments include surgical removal, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these.
Since swelling can be a sign of a serious problem, pet owners should call their veterinarian when their pet has facial swelling. If you have any question about facial swelling, dental disease, insect bites, or oral tumors, contact your veterinarian.
An archive of Pet Talk columns is the Web at http://www.cvm.uiuc.edu/petcolumns/