Viral papillomas are small (generally) round skin tumors that some people call warts. These “viral warts” tend to look a bit like a cauliflower and are most commonly seen in and around the mouth on younger dogs (less than 2 years of age).
The virus is spread through direct contact with papillomas on an infected dog or the virus in the dog’s environment. The virus can survive up to 2 months in a cold (40F) environment, but only 6 hours in a hot (98F) one.
Papilloma virus tends to infect dogs with an immature immune system, which are usually young dogs and puppies.
In many cases, treatment is unnecessary; the papillomas will go away on their own in one to five months. Squeezing or squishing the papilloma is thought to stimulate the immune system, but can be uncomfortable to the dog. But sometimes a dog will have so many papillomas in the mouth that eating becomes difficult. Papillomas in the mouth can become infected, causing pain, swelling and bad breath. If the papilloma isn’t going away on its own or is spreading, surgical removal of at least one of them appears to stimulate the dog’s immune system, and all of them will regress afterwards. A small percentage of dogs respond to azithromycin, an antibiotic.
Four Lakes Veterinary Clinic saw quite a few dogs in the spring of 2015 with viral papillomas. All of the affected dogs went to doggie daycare. This fall we are starting to see them appear again.
In the spring, two Shar-Peis from the same family were affected. Titus, the older dog, was affected first, and had one large papilloma on his mouth. It grew in size and Titus would sometimes lick or scratch at it, but eventually it was torn off by the other puppy in the household and regressed on its own.
Two months later, the owners noticed a papilloma in the younger dog, Nova’s, mouth. Because Nova developed a lot of papillomas in a short period of time, she was prescribed the antibiotic, azithromycin. There was no change after two weeks. We did another round, this time adding in cimetidine, a medication normally prescribed for stomach ulcers, but anecdotally noted to help with papillomas. Again, there was no improvement and Nova was developing more and larger papillomas in her mouth, on her tongue, on her lips, and near her eye.
Because of the owners concern for anesthesia in SharPeis, she was hoping for a non-surgical treatment, but it just wasn’t to be. Nova was sedated (not at Four Lakes–it was Memorial Day weekend and the owner was visiting her hometown) and many of the papillomas were surgically removed.
I saw other dogs with papillomas that started to become more numerous and not respond to time or azithromycin. From my experience with Nova, I now recommend surgical removal much sooner than before. I think it is reasonable to wait several weeks and see if the papilloma goes away on its own, but if there are more forming, I recommend sedation and removal quickly. I leave it up to owners if they want to feed the papillomas to their dogs, but the growths seem to disappear without that step.