What can pale gums in dogs tell you? As it happens, quite a lot.
From anemia to heart failure, breathing difficulties to dehydration, the color of a dog’s gums can be the canine equivalent of a red flashing light alerting you to a problem.
But here’s the rub: To spot the abnormal, you need to know what normal dog gums look like.
This article aims to help you recognize what’s normal along with what the abnormal dog gums may mean.
But don’t forget, if in any doubt about your pet’s health, always contact your veterinarian right away.
Healthy Dog Gums: What Do They Look Like?
The gums are a good place to gauge whether or not a dog is ailing because they are what’s called mucous membrane. This non-haired skin is a good window on the dog’s health.
To examine the gums, simply lift the dog’s lip.
But be careful not to get bitten. If your dog is of uncertain temperament, then look at the color of the dog’s inner eyelid instead. This is also lined by mucous membrane, and the same color change rules apply.
What Do Healthy Dog Gums Look Like?
To answer this, just look in the mirror. Pull your lower lip — what do you see inside?
Healthy dog gums look similar to a healthy person’s gums: pale pink and slightly shiny.
The same goes for the inside of the eyelid. Pull your lower eyelid down and take a look. This is what your dog’s inner lid should look like.
Are Dark Patches on My Dog’s Gums Bad?
No, not necessarily.
In the context of gums, pale pink is good. But some dogs do have naturally pigmented gums or patches of pigment.
So don’t worry too much if the gums are mottled with pigment, making them look gray-blue or brown. This may just be a reflection of your dog’s coat color.
The exception is if there are coal-black patches on the gum:
- Dense black color is indicative of too much melanin and a cancer called malignant melanoma.
- If you see this, get the dog checked by a vet right away.
Why Are My Dog’s Gums Shiny?
This reflects the dog’s hydration status.
A well-hydrated dog has slightly moist gums, and that moisture makes them glisten.
Why Are My Dog’s Gums Pink?
The pink color is because the small blood vessels in gums run close to the surface.
The pink indicates there are plenty of oxygenated red blood cells flowing through those vessels.
Dog Gum Color Chart
But what if the dog’s gums aren’t pale but yellow or even bright red? Here is a dog gum color chart to give you an idea:
|Pale gray or white|
|Blue or purple|
|Pale blue or gray|
|Black pigment (black spots)|
|Red line around the teeth|
As you can see, knowing what’s normal helps you appreciate the difference between healthy dog gums and a potential problem. Get into the habit of checking your dog’s mouth.
What Pale Gums in Dogs Tell You About Their Health
OK, so your dog’s gums are pale. What could this indicate?
The 5 main problems that spring into your vet’s mind are:
- Blood loss
Let’s take a closer look at each of them.
Causes of Pale Gums in Dogs
Anemia and blood loss are subtly different. A dog can be anemic without blood loss if, for example, the bone marrow doesn’t produce enough red blood cells. That said, the dividing line is a thin one.
Take a heavy flea infestation on a puppy, for example. The puppy will be anemic because of the blood loss to the hungry fleas. But we tend to reserve “blood loss” for bleeding (rather than feeding) disorders.
Causes of anemia in dogs include:
- Autoimmune hemolytic anemias, where the body destroys its own red blood cells
- Adverse transfusion reactions, where again, blood cells are destroyed
- Blood cells damaged by internal parasites such as Babesia
- Bone marrow damage by cancer, old age or drugs
- Lack of raw materials for making blood, such as iron, in the diet (which is rare in dogs)
What Are the Symptoms of Anemia in Dogs?
Think “pale gums in dogs” and most people think of anemia.
This slow-onset condition often has vague symptoms. This is because the body tries hard to make extra red blood cells and balance any losses. It’s only when the body loses this battle that signs of anemia develop.
Anemia means the dog can’t carry enough oxygenated blood around the body. This results in the following symptoms of anemia in dogs:
- Lack of energy
- Sometimes shortness of breath
If organ function becomes affected, it can also mean:
- Reduced appetite
- Possibly increased thirst
Can a Dog Die From Anemia?
Sadly, yes, dogs can die from anemia.
Particularly dangerous are the autoimmune disorders that trigger the body to destroy their own blood cells. These can cause profound, life-threatening anemias that can be fatal if left untreated.
The causes of blood loss in dogs are many and varied:
- A tumor bleeding internally
- Blood loss from the gut wall due to an ulcer or hookworms
- Blood loss to parasites such as fleas, lice or ticks
- Trauma, such as a laceration, fight or traffic accident
- Blood clotting disorders due to lungworm or rodenticides
A dog hit by a car is liable to go into shock. This is where blood pressure drops dramatically and endangers the supply to vital organs such as the brain or kidneys.
This could be due to an accident or a serious problem such as gastric dilation-volvulus (GDV).
The body’s coping mechanism is to shut down the smaller blood vessels in the skin and mucous membrane. This is what we see as pallor, and it’s an important warning sign that the dog’s circulation is struggling.
Pain and Anxiety
Similarly, pain and anxiety can cause a similar shutdown to the skin, as the dog prepares to fight back or flee from the painful or stressful event.
Triage of a Dog With Pale Gums
You aren’t sure whether to worry about your dog’s pale gums or not. What can you do at home? Why not triage the dog, in a similar way the vet tech would do if you showed up during a busy clinic?
What they would do is:
- Lift the dog’s lip or examine the eye.
- Look for the color — whether the membrane is a healthy pink, pale or another color.
- Anything other than pink indicates a problem.
Capillary Refill Time (CRT)
This tells you how well the circulation is coping. This is simply a matter of pressing the gum with your finger, then lifting the finger away. Watch how long it takes for the color to return to the blanched area:
- A normal CRT takes less than 2 seconds.
- Longer than 2 seconds means the patient has a problem with their circulation.
Dry or Tacky Gums
Touch the dog’s gums with a fingertip. How do the gums feel?
- Moist, tacky or dry?
- Again, moist is the ideal.
Yes, an anxious animal can have a dry mouth. But how likely are they to be worried at home? If there are other symptoms present, such as vomiting or a lack of appetite, then the dryness could be dehydration.
Remember the Bigger Picture
- Why are the gums pale? Has the dog had a recent illness or accident?
- Why is the circulation poor? Have they been coughing or otherwise ill recently?
- Why are the gums dry? Have they not been drinking, or have they lost fluid in diarrhea?
Think about your dog’s health over the past few days — this could provide vital clues as to what’s wrong.
Here’s a quick tutorial from Dr. Melanie Hunt, DVM, on how to check your dog’s gums:
First Aid for a Dog With Pale Gums
Your dog has pale gums. What should you do?
Contact the vet! But also:
- Stop any obvious external bleeding.
- Phone the vet to let them know you are on the way there.
- Keep the dog warm.
- Don’t give pain relief at home.
If the situation isn’t an emergency, check the dog’s feces for signs of blood.
Also, try to collect a urine sample to take to the appointment. This can tell the vet if the blood cells are being damaged or not.
Final Thoughts on Pale Gums in Dogs
Whatever the cause of your dog’s pale gums, at least when you check regularly, you stand a better chance of catching the problem before it reaches a crisis point.
If your dog is relaxed at home, then fear and anxiety are less likely. So, any paleness is a true reflection of what you see.
Don’t panic — but do seek veterinary attention for a dog with pale gums.
- Ward, Ernest, DVM. “Anemia in Dogs.” VCA Hospitals. 2015. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/anemia-in-dogs.
- Shaw, Nicole, DVM, DACVIM, and Karyn Harrell, DVM, DACVIM. “Immune-Mediated Hemolytic Anemia: Diagnosing and Treating a Complex Disease.” DVM360. Dec. 1, 2008. http://veterinarymedicine.dvm360.com/imha-diagnosing-and-treating-complex-disease.
- Kirby, Rebecca, DVM, DACVIM, DACVECC, et al. “Emergency Care for Cats and Dogs.” Merck Veterinary Manual. https://www.msdvetmanual.com/special-pet-topics/emergencies/emergency-care-for-dogs-and-cats.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Dec. 27, 2018.
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