The mucous membrane color of a dog can give you a clue as to how they are feeling and even if they’ve recently experienced an event that could be life-threatening.
Physiologically, the color of your dog’s gums, tongue, or conjunctiva should be pale pink. But in some conditions, this color can be changed dramatically by a variety of mechanisms that kick in when a dog’s health is in danger.
In today’s article, we’re looking at some of these color changes and what they might mean. We’re also looking at how the diseases or accidents that lead to them can be diagnosed, treated, and prevented.
Evaluating your dog’s mucous membranes at home
Besides the color, which is, of course, important as it needs to be pale pink at all times, there are some things that you should pay attention to when it comes to a pet’s mucous membranes.
First of all, the easiest mucous membrane to evaluate would be the gums, but if your dog is reluctant when it comes to you touching their mouth, you can at least assess the color and overall appearance of the mucous membranes by looking at the inner part of their eyelids.
If the mucous membranes are sticky, it could be a sign of dehydration. If you apply pressure to an area of your dog’s gums for three seconds, you can actually assess the capillary refill time, which is an indicator of how well your dog’s blood circulation is functioning.
While you can do all of these assessments at home, they are in no way a replacement for actual veterinary assistance. If your dog is depressed, vomiting, having trouble breathing, or exhibiting any other worrying symptoms and their mucous membranes don’t look as they normally do, call your vet as soon as possible.
Abnormal colors to look out for and what they might mean
White, pale, and slightly pale
White gums are never a good sign as they could be an indication that there’s internal bleeding happening somewhere and your dog is losing a lot of blood quickly – it goes without saying that this color can show up in accidents, for example, so veterinary assistance is required immediately.
Pale and slightly pale gums can mean anemia, which can be produced by a variety of factors, from blood-clotting abnormalities to autoimmune diseases. Shock and kidney disease can be two other conditions at the root of this symptom.
The exact type of red can mean different things in this case. Bright, almost cherry-like red mucous membranes might be an indication that the dog has either eaten something toxic or has been exposed to something else that’s poisonous, such as carbon monoxide. This color shows up in pets that have high blood pressure, too.
On the other hand, slightly red mucous membranes can be an indication of gingivitis or local oral health issues, whether that be from periodontal disease, irritation, or an infection.
Purple or blue
These two colors are almost always an indication that your dog’s blood isn’t oxygenating properly.
Whether it’s because of asthma, choking, or hypothermia, or because they have developed a form of heart disease that makes it impossible for enough blood to be pumped into their main circulation, blue or purple is never a good color when it comes to your dog’s visible mucous membranes.
Brown or black spots
Unless your dog is a breed where these spots are actually normal, or they were born with them for any reason, brown and black spots could be a sign that your dog might have developed some sort of oral complication or that they might have contracted a viral disease.
If the color is gray to brown, they might have developed methemoglobinemia, which can happen if you gave your dog Tylenol or they somehow ingested a few acetaminophen pills. By the way, some human medications, especially those for pain, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, are a no-go for dogs as they can cause havoc in their systems.
Yellow mucous membranes, whether that be a dog’s gums, skin, lids, or any other, is a sign of icterus. Also known as jaundice, this condition is caused by an unusual accumulation of yellow pigment in the blood and tissues.
Normally, this pigment (bilirubin) is eliminated through the bile and the normal digestive process. Yellow mucous membranes can also show up when a large destruction of red blood cells has taken place, such as in damages to the spleen or when the bile duct is obstructed.
When to bring your dog to the veterinary clinic
Whenever you see any changes in your dog’s mucous membrane color, you should take them to the vet. In some cases, time is of the essence as your pet might have suffered some form of organ failure, so they need to receive treatment as early as possible.
Given that mucous membrane color changes can also show up in severe intoxications, time is of the essence.
How are mucous membrane color changes diagnosed and treated?
Since the majority of the causes leading to such modifications are internal, there could be several different diagnostic methods that your veterinarian might use to make sure that they reach an accurate diagnosis. These can range from imaging techniques like ultrasonography or x-rays or more advanced ones such as MRI or CT scans to blood tests for biochemistry or a complete blood count.
A physical examination rarely leads to a clear diagnosis, in the sense that besides the capillary refill time (which can be tested), there’s no way of knowing what has caused the change in the mucous membrane color. Of course, if an oral health issue is at the root of the problem, a physical examination could prove its worth, but even in this case, additional testing is required, such as dental x-rays, for example.
As for the treatment, it can vary largely depending on the cause. In icterus, for example, which causes the mucous membranes to become yellow, depending on the degree of liver damage, the treatment can last for months before the organ recovers its capacity. If the gallbladder needs to be removed, then an operation will be performed, and the dog may have to eat a certain diet for the rest of their life.
If the pale or white color is caused by internal bleeding, the pet will need to be stabilized, and the hemorrhage will have to be also stopped with surgery (following a series of diagnostic tests).
When mucous membranes look different
Some dogs have different physical features compared to others, which can make the examination of mucous membranes a little more challenging. For example, there are breeds that naturally boast pigmented gums, such as some Airedales, Mastiffs, or Newfoundlands.
The majority of the breeds that do have pigmented mucous membranes still have some spots that are pink or that show their true color, but that is not the case for all dogs. In most Chow-Chows, the gums are black across their entire surface, while their tongues are blue – which makes the task of assessing their mucous membrane a little challenging. Still, even in these dogs, the sclera and the ear flaps can be examined for changes.