by Mark C. Robinson, founder/president of Walkin’ Pets and inventor of Walkin’ Wheels dog wheelchair
The terms decubitus ulcer and decubital ulcer are interchangeable. These ulcers are also referred to as pressure sores; terms are often used interchangeably in the veterinary community. Decubitus, from the Latin decumbere, means “to lie down.” Because the common denominator of all such ulcerations is pressure, pressure sore is perhaps the most descriptive term for this condition.
The principle cause of decubital ulcers is excessive pressure, usually from the surface of the floor against a bony prominence. Just like in humans, a pressure sore is an area of skin and tissue that is damaged from the animal laying in one place for too long, or from repeated trauma while the animal is lowering itself to the ground. The resultant pressure reduces the blood flow to the area, and a sore forms when the skin and tissue do not receive enough oxygen and nutrients to function properly. The degradation of tissue can even extend into the bone itself. Decubital ulcers can become chronic, and can be a very serious condition that requires significant nursing and veterinary care.
Like bed sores in a human being, these ulcers are a serious concern with any pet that is immobilized for a lengthy period of time, or has trouble recognizing pain sensations. Decubital ulcers also occur with weakened animals who cannot gently sit or lie down, but instead drop heavily on the floor, repeatedly traumatizing a specific area, like an elbow or hip. These commonly occur over the lateral surface of the shoulder, elbow, carpus, greater trochanter, knee, or hock. Dogs may develop sternal ulcers if they are uncomfortable in other positions. Not only do decubital ulcers cause pain and disfigurement, the condition can become chronic and expensive to treat. Occasionally, it can become life threatening. Healthy pets with normal sensitivity and mobility do not have problems with these types of sores.
Several types of dogs are genetically predisposed to decubital ulcers. Dachshunds and other long backed breeds suffer from intervertebral disc herniation and large breeds such as Mastiffs and Great Danes can be predisposed to cervical vertebral instability. Of course, any injuries that result in paraplegia also predispose an animal to these types of ulcers.
Ducubital ulcers in pets appear in the beginning as a discoloration in the skin. Obviously, it’s difficult to tell skin color in a dog with a full coat, however, as the ulcer progresses, the fur in the area will begin to become matted and fall out. The skin will feel warmer in this area as well.
Ducubital ulcers often become infected. Although uncommon, grossly infected pressure sores can lead to acute decubital sepsis, necrotizing fasciitis, gangrene or unnoticed osteomyelitis (bone infection). Symptoms to watch for include: warm, red skin, pain and swelling around the area, thick yellow or green pus, mental confusion or difficulty concentrating, rapid heartbeat, weakness, and a bad smell from the sore. An elevated temperature and chills can also be present, but isn’t always, especially in elderly pets.