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Ask the Vet: What Causes White Gums in Dogs?

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White gums in dogs is something very worrisome considering that it is indicative of several critical conditions where every second counts. Getting acquainted with the color of your dog's gums when your dog is healthy is paramount so that you can readily recognize alarming color changes right away. If your dog has white gums, please stop reading and see your vet at your earliest convenience. In this article, veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec discusses white gums in dogs and what conditions may cause them.

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How to Check Your Dog's Gums 

Since the appearance of a dog's gums can tell us a lot about its health, it is safe to say that the gums are a window on the dog’s overall well-being. Better said, the gums serve as a red flashing light alerting to a problem.

From anemia and bleeding through heart disorders and toxicities to dehydration and impaired breathing – the gums can signal a plethora of health issues.

Needless to say, to recognize the abnormal, first you need to be familiar with what is normal. This poses a question – what do normal gums look like in dogs? Luckily, the answer is easy – normal dog gums look just like normal human gums which are pinkish and slightly shiny.

The pink coloration comes from the small blood vessels that run close to the gum’s surface. It should be mentioned that some dogs have naturally pigmented gums (gray-blue or brown patches). The slightly shiny appearance is because in normally hydrated dogs the gums are moist and glistening.

Checking Your Dog's Capillary Refill Time 

Checking your dog’s capillary refill time (CRT) gives insightful information pertaining to the circulatory system’s status. Do not get scared by this long medical term. Simply put, CRT indicates how well is the blood circulating through the body and it is quite simple to check.

All you need to do is press the gum with your finger, lift the finger away and then observe how long it takes for the color in the blanched area to return. If it takes less than 2 seconds for the pink color to return, than the CRT is normal. If it takes more than 2 seconds then it can be assumed that there is a circulation issue. If the CRT is longer than 4 seconds it indicates deep shock and if it less than 1 second it indicates high blood pressure.

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Checking Your Dog's Hydration 

While checking for the CRT and touching the gums also pay attention to how do gums feel. Normally they should be moist and slimy which is an indicator of the dog’s hydration status. If the gums are tacky or dry than there might be something more than what meets the eye.

Checking the Color of Your Dog's Gums 

White gums in dogs or gums that are pale may be suggestive of the following conditions: anemia, blood loss, shock, pain or anxiety.

Gums that are blue or purple may be suggestive of heart disease, airway disease and carbon monoxide poisoning. Gums that are pale blue or gray can be indicative of airway disease.

Brick red gums can be indicative of sepsis, fever, and toxicity.

Black spots on the gums can be suggestive of malignant melanoma, while a red line around the teeth can be indicative of gingivitis.

Causes of White Gums in Dogs

As seen, white gums in dogs can be indicative of a variety of conditions. Following is some more information that goes in more depth on some conditions known to cause white gums in dogs.

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Anemia in Dogs 

Circulating red blood cells that made in the dog's bone marrow, carry oxygen from the lungs around the body. A deficiency in the number of red blood cells is called anemia.

External and internal bleeding are the most obvious causes of anemia, but there are other possible causes, including the premature destruction of healthy red blood cells (hemolysis) and suppression of red cell production in the bone marrow.

Simply stated, anemia thins the blood. This development sometimes produces an audible heart murmur. Lethargy and weakness are common signs of anemia. Seriously affected dogs pant more than normal, their gums become pale and their pulses quicken.

Based on why and how they develop, there are several types of anemia.

  1. Anemia due to blood loss is mainly caused by external injury and internal bleeding. The latter may result from stomach or duodenal ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease, tumors, parasites such as heartworms. Fleas, ticks and hookworms can also cause chronic blood loss in puppies.
  2. A hemolytic anemia is any condition in which healthy red blood cells are destroyed prematurely. There are many causes including toxin-producing bacteria that destroy red blood cells, tick-born blood parasites such as Babesia, inherited genetic defects (restricted to certain breeds – West Highland White Terriers, Basenjis, Beagles, American Cocker Spaniels and English Springer Spaniels) and immune-mediated hemolytic anemia (IMHA). IMHA is the most common cause. It occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own red blood cells.
  3. Bone marrow suppression anemia. The bone marrow manufactures red blood cells. Any problem that interferes with the red blood cells’ production can cause a bone marrow suppression anemia. Common causes include: chronic illness (especially illness involving the kidneys or liver), iron deficiency, female hormone estrogen given as medication or secreted by an estrogen-producing ovarian or testicular tumor, anti-cancer drugs, cancers that affect the bone marrow.

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Blood Loss in Dogs 

Dogs can lose blood if they bleed excessively. There are two types of bleeding: internal and external. Internal bleeding occurs when dogs bleed internally as it may happen with liver/spleen/kidney damage due to trauma (car accident), bleeding stomach ulcers, heavy hookworm infestations, tumors that rupture and bleed and rodenticides poisoning.

External bleeding may occur with trauma – lacerations, fights, car accidents, gunshot wounds and blood clotting disorders – von Willebrand’s disease and hemophilia. It should be noted that external blood-sucking parasites like fleas, lice or ticks, if heavily present, can lead to significant blood loss and gums pallor.

Shock in Dogs 

As a condition, shock is a potential killer. It develops when blood circulation fails and the tissues are starved of oxygen. To prevent oxygen deprivation, the blood concentrates in the vital organs (brain, heart, kidneys).

This is actually a type of coping mechanism – the body shuts down its smaller blood vessels to ensure proper blood flow where it is most necessary. Since the blood is concentrated in the above mentioned organs, therefore, there is not much blood left to flow to the gums and they become white or pale.

Pain and Anxiety in Dogs 

Dogs manage pain and anxiety through the so called "fight or flight" response. When in pain or anxious, the body acts similarly as when in shock – it shuts down the small blood vessels in the skin and mucous membranes. Consequently the gums lose its healthy pink color and turn pale pink or white.

As seen, white gums in dogs can be indicative of several serious conditions. Get acquainted with your dog's normal gum color and moisture, so to readily recognize signs of trouble. If your dog ever develops white gums, see your vet at your earliest convenience.

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About the Author

ivana crnec

Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia. She currently practices as a veterinarian in Bitola and is completing her postgraduate studies in the Pathology of Domestic Carnivores at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Zagreb, Croatia.

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