Dog Mucocele: What to do if your Akita has a Swollen Tongue

On a lazy Saturday morning, our American Akita named Haga, let out a big yawn as he pushed into us for a snuggle. With our Akita’s mouth wide open, I noticed a large lump underneath his tongue. “That’s not normal” I thought. I forced my Akita’s mouth open and snapped a quick photo, and sent it off to my uncle who is a world class veterinarian.

“It’s hard to tell from the photo, but it looks like a mucocele…an enlarged salivary gland.”

When we were finally able to make it to the veterinarian on Monday, our vet confirmed my uncles diagnosis…the salivary gland under the left side of my Akita’s tongue was enlarged. Why my Akita’s tongue was enlarged was still a mystery. It could be infected, it could be a tumor, or it simply could be filled with saliva, as a dog’s salivary gland can sometimes become blocked, and the saliva is not able to drain properly.

Our vet recommended we go see a veterinarian surgical specialist to handle the gland. If it were a tumor it would obviously need to be removed. We called around a few sugrical hospitals and put a date on the books for a few months ahead.

Dog Salivary Mucocele: A Medical Emergency?

Over the next few weeks, the enlargement of our Akita’s tongue continued to grow, and it became a concern that our Akita would not be able to properly eat, drink and even breathe! We called our primary vet again, and they decided to cut open the swollen tongue and see if there was anything they could do, but they warned us: if there is a growth or the need to remove the gland, they likely would not be able to do it.

Any time your dog needs a surgery, it’s a nerve wracking experience for a dog owner, and our Akita, like most Akitas, isn’t a big fan of the vet anyway. Haga had a lot of discomfort after his last surgery during his neutering and gastropexy, and the anesthesia took a toll on him. You can read all about that here.

However, the vet insured us that it was a low risk procedure. So we dropped our Akita off early in the morning, and in the afternoon they called us with some positive news.

Salivary Mucocele: A Blockage of the Salivary Gland

It turns out that our Akita’s swollen gland was a result of the salivary gland being blocked, and the saliva not being able to properly drain into the mouth. Unfortunately veterinarian medicine doesn’t know what causes a blocked salivary gland. There are some theories about the tongue and gland being damaged by chewing on something hard like a stick, or a dog accidentally biting their own tongue.

During the procedure, the veterinarian aspirated the gland (cut it open and drained it), and then performed a “marsupialization” where they cut a new hole in the gland for the saliva to properly drain. Typically a mucocele is not a medical emergency, unless it is causing nerve damage to the tongue, or impairing your dog’s ability to eat, drink or breathe.

The vet stitched our Akita up and gave us strict rules about what he could and couldn’t eat for the next 14 days. For two weeks everything seemed to be great, until our Akita gave another big yawn, and there was another swollen spot, only this time further back in our pup’s mouth.

Salivary Gland Removal to Resolve a Mucocele

Our primary vet informed us that it wasn’t worth it to continue to aspirate and drain the gland because the swelling would just come back, and every time you cut open the tissue you run the risk of infection, and of course the build up of scar tissue.

We were finally able to get into an appointment with a surgical veterinarian, and the stress and worry of watching your Akita have surgery started all over again. Again we spent a morning trying to distract ourselves while we killed some time as we waited for a call from the veterinarian.

We finally got the call and again the best possible news: Everything went well, and Haga the American Akita is doing great! The surgeon was able to remove the gland cleanly with no complications, and was confident the gland removal would be a curative solution.

Salivary Gland Removal Side Effects and Risks

The one question that everyone has about salivary gland removal is, will your Akita have a dry mouth with the gland removed? Currently there is no data to suggest that could be an issue, because dogs actually have several glands that create saliva. While you never want to remove any body parts if you don’t have to, removing a single gland will not create any serious dry mouth in your dog.

Of course any time you or your dog undergo surgery, there are risks of complications in terms to allergic reactions to medications, or infection, so prophylactic antibiotics should be used for most procedures.

Salivary Gland Removal Recovery

The recovery for removing the salivary gland in our Akita was actually an easier process than the recovery from the surgery just to drain the gland. Because the gland was removed from outside the neck, there were simply some external stitches and the stiches in the mouth were not in as vascular of an area as the tongue. Aside from having two small incisions in the neck area, and having a funny shave job, our American Akita was back to his usual goofy self in just a few days.

How Much Does Dog Salivary Gland Removal Surgery Cost?

The procedure to drain the gland, and the procedure to remove the salivary gland were both expensive. The cost to remove the salivary gland was $1,800. The procedure to drain the salivary mucocele and perform the marsupialization was $1,300.

Fortunately we have pet insurance for our American Akita, and roughly about 80% of the total costs for both procedures was covered. We highly recommend pet insurance for any cat or dog because it’s relatively inexpensive, and can save you thousands of dollars over the course of your pet’s life. You also never want to hesitate to get your pet the care they need because of the cost.

How to Avoid a Salivary Mucocele in Your Dog

Ultimately, there’s not much you can do to prevent a mucocele since veterinarian medicine doesn’t actually know what causes them. In general you want to keep an eye on your Akita’s oral health, and make sure they aren’t ever chewing on anything that’s not dog friendly, like tree branches or sticks, which are actually not healthy for dog’s teeth.

This is also a great example of why it’s so important to properly socialize your Akita, which doesn’t just mean getting them adjusted to other people and other dogs, but also to get them comfortable with being touched in sensitive areas like their eyes, ears and mouth. Without having the ability to get a good look inside of our Akita’s mouth, we may have missed how serious the mucocele problem was.

To read our full Akita socialization guide, click here.

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