What is your dog’s gum colour and appearance telling you?

What Makes a Dog’s Gums Pale?

We look at the colour of humans’ faces to determine their health; indeed, facial pallor has been associated with sickness for centuries. In dogs, on the other hand, we can get an idea of the dog’s overall health by simply looking at the colour of the gums.

​Yes, the gums… you heard right. Contrary to how the saying goes, a wet nose isn’t an indicator of a dog’s health, but the gums are fairly reliable if you know what to look for. This is why if your dog has been acting sickly, your vet will skip the nose and go straight to the mouth.

It’s a good habit to get accustomed to the look of your dog’s gums so you can recognize changes. A baseline assessment will help you quickly recognize any signs of problems, especially life-threatening ones.

If your dog is mellow and accustomed to having its mouth checked (a big plus!), what should you be looking for? There are three important criteria to consider:

Let’s take a look at each of these. Then, if your dog ever shows any abnormalities, you should be on your way to the vet without wasting time.

Be extra careful if you have a fractious dog or are unsure about how it may react!
Some dogs don’t like having their mouths handled or may be in pain, which may trigger defensive biting.
If you’re not sure, please stay safe and out of harm’s way!

Assessing the Color of Your Dog’s Gums

Take a look at your dog’s gums now, at this very moment. If your dog is healthy, you can use this as a baseline assessment of normal gum colour. Lift the upper lip to observe the colour of the gums just above the upper canine teeth. Most dogs have gums that are of a healthy, bubble gum sort of salmon-pink colour; however, consider that what is “normal” varies from dog to dog.

What should you do if your dog has naturally dark, black patches or black-pigmented gums (as often seen as in the Chow Chow or Shar Pei)? In that case, things can get a bit tricky.

Veterinarian Christine Zink suggests examining the eyes instead by gently pulling the eyelid down and looking at the colour of the tissue. Walker Valley Vet suggests as an alternate to assess the colour of the tongue.

Now, take a mental picture of your dog’s gums, tongue, and eye tissue color so you can remember what they look like. This way, if these tissues ever change, you can recognize problems quickly.

Note: It may be tempting to take actual photos of your dog’s healthy tissues, but different lighting situations may make things complicated to interpret, so keep that in mind.

Assessing Your Dog’s Gums’ Capillary Refill Time

Capillary refill time may sound like a complicated term, but it’s nothing more than the time it takes for the color of your dog’s gums to return to normal after enough pressure is applied to cause blanching.
Gums have many small blood vessels called capillaries. In pressing and then releasing pressure on the gums, blood is forced out of these capillaries and then let back in, so you can measure the level of blood perfusion.
All you will need to do is to simply press firmly on your dog’s gums with your finger. Upon removing your finger, you’ll notice how the tissue will appear briefly white until the normal pink color returns, preferably within 1.5 seconds.
It should take no more than 2 seconds, explains veterinarian Dr. Ron Hines. In dogs with dark or black gums, you really cannot perform this test, but you can still rely on the color of the eye tissue as described above.

Assessing Hydration of Your Dog’s Gums

While you’re looking at your dog’s gums and touching them, also check their level of hydration. In a normally hydrated dog, the gums will be slick and wet. In other words, slimy is the norm. You should feel the moisture upon touching them.

What if My Dog’s Gums Are Dry, Pale, and Bloodless?

Does your dog have any of these abnormalities as you are reading this article? If so, please stop reading and take your dog to vet!

This article was not necessarily meant to be read when your dog has pale gums and you’re trying to figure out what is wrong with him. There are too many posts on forums and websites by dog owners concerned about their dogs’ pale gums, asking what they should do. Instead of surfing for a solution, they should be on their way to the vet! Sadly, waiting it out often leads to a dire outcome.
For instance, white gums in dogs, as veterinarian Dr. Crnec points out, can be indicative of serious, life threatening issues such as anemia due to blood loss, bone marrow suppression and shock.

This article is intended to help the reader recognize signs of trouble. Below, you’ll find a list of possible causes for pale gums, but this is not meant to tell you what is wrong (that’s your vet’s job!). Use this list not for diagnosis but as impetus for taking your dog to the vet right away.
If your dog has pale gums at this very moment, stop reading and go see your vet!

Dog Gum Color Chart

This is just a general guide of what an abnormal gum color might mean. If your dog has gums of these colors, or any unusual color, please see your vet.

Gum Color  and Possible Reason

Recognising Signs of Trouble

Now that you know how your dog’s gums should feel and look like, it’s time to learn what abnormal gums may mean. As mentioned, this is simply a guide to emphasize the seriousness of these gum abnormalities, it’s not meant to give a diagnosis. Of course, it’s also an interesting read for those who, like me, are intrigued about learning more about how the dog’s body works!

Abnormal Gum Color

We talked earlier about how a dog’s normal gums are generally a healthy, bubble gum pink. We also mentioned that the shade may vary from dog to dog. Owners who brush their dog’s teeth on a daily basis are advantaged because they often inspect their dog’s teeth and gums. This helps them keep track of any abnormalities. Anything that appears abnormal should raise a red flag. Pale gums will appear pale pink or whitish. If you notice pale gums in your dog, you are dealing with a serious condition, as this means poor blood supply to the area and often indicates a problem with the dog’s circulation. See your vet immediately.

Medical Issues That Can Cause White, Pale Gums

The following are some causes of pale gums in dogs. Notice how most of these conditions are an emergency!

*Note: In humans, pallor is often associated with anemia which is often due to reduced iron intake. Anemia can affect dogs, too, but for different reasons. Lack of iron is mostly unheard of in dogs because their diets are rich in iron.

Abnormal Capillary Refill Time

We talked about conditions associated with pale gums, but what about gums that take a longer than normal to resume their color? According to Pet Education, a prolonged capillary refill time (more than 2 seconds) signifies that the blood is not flowing adequately. Affected pets are not getting enough oxygen to their tissues. The following are just some possible causes of prolonged capillary refill times in dogs:

What If the Capillary Refill Time Is Fast—Less Than 1 Second?

This can also be a sign of trouble. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, this may be an indication of “fever, heat stroke, distributive shock, or an early compensatory stage of hypovolemic shock.”

Abnormal Gum Hydration

Last but not least, we have abnormal gum hydration. Normally, a dog’s gums should be glistening, smooth, firm, and pink. In the case of dry, sticky, tacky gums, dehydration is the usual cause. This is often accompanied by sunken eyes and skin tenting. When dogs are dehydrated, they usually need to see the vet for IV fluid therapy and the cause of the dehydration needs to be addressed.

A Tip to Help Puppies Love Having Their Gums Checked

I like to train young puppies to get accustomed to having their mouth inspected from an early age. This way, their owners can start brushing their teeth and the pups don’t mind when the vet needs to inspect their mouths. I use counterconditioning to accomplish this. I start by touching their mouth briefly and following with a tasty treat. Then I increase the length of the touch until I can open their mouth slightly. Then I stick a high-value treat in their mouth, yum! After several repetitions, the dog is eager to let me open its mouth because he knows a treat will follow. How about that!

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