Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."
What Makes a Dog's Gums Pale?
We look at the color 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 color 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:
- Gum color
- Capillary refill time
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.
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 color. Lift the upper lip to observe the color of the gums just above the upper canine teeth. Most dogs have gums that are of a healthy, bubble gum sort of salmon-pink color; 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 color of the tissue. Walker Valley Vet suggests as an alternate to assess the color 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.
How to Check the Gums of Your Dog or Cat
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
|Gum Color||Possible Reason|
Blue or purple
Lack of oxygen, trouble breathing, pneumonia, asthma, choking, heart disease, low blood pressure, and/or hypothermia
Bright, cherry red
Exposure to toxins, heat stroke, high blood pressure, and/or carbon monoxide poisoning
Topical irritation (such as from chewing a new toy), gingivitis, and/or infection
Liver problem, anemia, and/or massive destruction of red blood cells
Pale pink or white
Anemia, heart problems, blood clotting disorder, internal bleeding, kidney disease, shock, bloat, rat poison, heavy metal poison, cancer, and/or hypothermia
Recognizing 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!
- Shock. in the case of shock, the blood may be concentrated in certain body parts (the most important organs) causing less blood flow to the gums. The causes for shock are many and may encompass several of the conditions below. See also the capillary refill time section.
- Chronic renal failure (kidney disease). The kidneys normally make a hormone called erythropoietin which is responsible for telling the bone marrow to make red blood cells. When kidney function is impaired, less of this hormone is made, therefore the dog becomes anemic and develops pale gums.
- Internal bleeding. This may be caused by several factors. Dogs who have been injured such as being hit by a car may bleed internally. Or the liver and/or spleen and sometimes kidneys have been damaged. A stomach ulcer may trigger internal bleeding, and often dog owners will notice their dogs will produce produce black, tarry stools. Another cause of internal bleeding is a splenic mass which may rupture and bleed causing lethargy, pale gums, collapse, and fluid in the belly (ascites).
- Auto-immune disease. This is a condition where the dog's immune system attacks itself. In the case of hemolytic anemia, the immune system starts destroying red blood cells which leads to anemia and pale gums. Hemolytic anemia is a condition that can be triggered by an immune-mediated cause.
- A blood clotting disorder. In this case, the blood doesn't coagulate normally, causing a predisposition to bleed abnormally or excessively. Examples are conditions like thrombocytopenia and thrombocytopathy. Affected dogs may develop pale gums, bleeding, blood in urine or stool, petechiae, and bruises on the skin.
- Heart disease. A heart problem may cause a drop in blood pressure and coughing, tiredness, rapid breathing, poor appetite, pale or bluish gums, weak pulse, and an enlarged abdomen (ascites).
- Bloat. In this case, the dog will have a distended abdomen, may try to vomit, may appear in distress, and will have ghost-white gums. The pale gums in this case appear because the stomach torsion stops blood from returning from the lower body back to the heart, explains veterinarian Patrick Mahaney.
- Severe parasite infestation. This can be seen when dogs have a heavy load of intestinal worms (such as hookworms) or a severe flea infestation. Yes, fleas can consume 15 times their own body weight in blood and trigger parasitic anemia, according to theASPCA. Also, tick-borne diseases like babesiosis may cause anemia.
- Exposure to rat poison. Rat poison often contains warfarin, an anticoagulant, causing affected dogs to bleed profusely.
- Heavy metal toxicity. Zinc toxicity results from the ingestion of objects made of zinc (think pennies minted after 1982). Zinc interferes with the absorption of iron meant for the production of red blood cells and triggers anemia, explains veterinarian Douglas Brum. Affected dogs develop pale yellow-colored gums and skin along with a brown, orange tint to the urine. Some may even develop acute kidney failure.
- Cancer. There are some forms of cancer, such as bone marrow cancer, that cause a decreased production of blood cells. Cancers affecting the liver and the spleen (hemangiosarcoma) can also cause significant internal bleeding into the abdomen.
*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:
- Shock. In this case, the dog is experiencing decreased blood volume. Affected dogs may be lethargic and exhibit low blood pressure, low pulse, cold feet, rapid breathing, and prolonged capillary refill times. The causes of shock are many and include exposure to rat poison or toxins and internal bleeding.
- Dehydration. In this case, the volume of water within the dog's bloodstream falls, making blood thicker and more concentrated. This makes it more difficult to circulate, and as a consequence, those capillaries become slow to fill. Causes for dehydration include fever, heat stroke, or excess fluid loss from vomiting or diarrhea. Along with prolonged capillary refill times, dehydrated dogs may exhibit sunken eyes, dry mouth and gums, or poor skin elasticity which can be tested by gently pulling up the skin at the scruff area. If the skin fails to immediately spring back to its normal position, your dog is dehydrated and most likely needs vet attention.
- Heart problems. Affected dogs may have a fast heart rate but a weak pulse. How does this happen? Basically, there's a problem with circulation. The blood has a hard time flowing to certain areas. Heart conditions such as congestive heart failure or cardiomyopathy may cause decreased blood flow, which makes capillaries slow to fill.
- Medication overdoses. Some drugs such as Atenolol (Tenormin), propranolol (Inderal), and calcium channel blockers such as diltiazem (Cardizem) or digoxin (Lanoxin, Cardoxin) may trigger bradycardia, e.g. a slow heart rate, explains veterinarian Ron Hines. Because circulation is slower, it causes prolonged capillary refill times.
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!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2015 Adrienne Farricelli
Rottweiler on February 22, 2020:
If my dog is pregnant will the gums turn a whitish pink close to birth
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 03, 2020:
Debbien Blue, you really need to take your dog to the vet for a check-up. If he is struggling to exercise and has dark gums it could be he is anemic or something else may be going on.
DebbienBlue on January 02, 2020:
My 5 year old GSD we used to exercise 3 times a day often doing 6 or 7 miles per day. But now my dog Blue is panting all the time hes no longer able to do much exercise at all probably 3 or 4 1o mins at a time. Ive also noticed his gums are a very dark colour no pink. Help advice needed its so upsetting
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 10, 2019:
Charlotte, the only advice that can be given is to have it checked out by the vet to be safe
Charlotte Smith on August 06, 2019:
my very healthy dog has naturally black gums (Pyrenees shepherd) - but she is starting to get a pink pigment on one side of her mouth. she is ten. I see no problem with teeth or any other mouth problem. I would love any advice..
debra smart on October 11, 2018:
What is the cost of scaling for a small dog that's 13 years old with red gums
J hov on July 31, 2018:
My 10 yr old Pomerania has black swallon gums. Is this a serious medical problem?
merrick motors on March 20, 2018:
my 13 year old little dog the vet says has a bad tooth it is black
August on January 14, 2018:
what about black gums
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 31, 2017:
Pale gums need immediate vet attention.
JJ on December 21, 2017:
Please help. my american bully 16weeks. he has pale gums. He dont touch his food but very active. he drinks water too but after his morning walk.
Derek james on September 23, 2017:
Vets are only in it for the money I don’t trust any vet!!!
Jessica on September 17, 2017:
My min pin is about 8wks prego an her gums are rosey an a lil black is that normal? She's acting perfectly fine.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 06, 2017:
Kate, no home remedies for such serious symptoms, I hope you saw your vet ASAP!
kate on August 03, 2017:
what are the home remedies if my dog has a pale (white) gums and heavy breathing? please help.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 26, 2017:
I am not a vet, but, with pale gums,I wouldn't take things lightly, especially at his age. If I were you, I would look for an emergency vet. It can be due to internal blood loss like a broken spleen.
Maria on June 26, 2017:
We have a large dog, Rhodesian Ridgeback, 10yrs I think, anyway, Bruce has not been eating like normal, been very sluggish, and just not acting like himself, today my daughter noticed his gums are white, I never thought about checking his gums, We have an appt with the vet at the end of the week, do you suggest taking him asap?
April on June 18, 2017:
Took my 4year old shitzu to the vet today due to her having server bloody diarrhea. She's not eating or drinking and they put her on medication. But she now has white sticky gums. All of her bloodwork came back fine and they gave her iv fluid in her neck. Said she has a gastrointestinal virus. Am really worried about her.
Hailey on April 12, 2017:
Hello, I am 12 and have a beagle that is almost 2. Today my dog had poop with fresh blood all over it. I already read your article about poop with blood in it, and I checked my dogs gums. They are a light pink color, almost normal. I think my family should take him to the vet, but I don't know. My mom also said he was pooping lots this morning. What should I do?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 26, 2017:
Anne, I would see if you can find a vet who charges little, call around and ask shelters as they often have some resources. You can also apply for Care Credit. Is this dog a Jack russell? Some dogs are pretty stoic and don't show signs of disease until they are advanced. Why was he getting a blood transfusion at 6 weeks? I would talk to the vet who did it,, maybe there was a clotting disorder or something else causing him to be anemic?
Anne on January 26, 2017:
Our almost 7 month Jack-a-bee has had on and off pale gums and tongue for two days nows. Acting completely normal, eating drinking, no vomit, using the bathroom.... We are so confused. Read through the article and everything passes okay! He was lathagic at 6 weeks got a blood transfusion, but that was months ago....
HEEELP? We are two LOW income college students. We love our puppy so much....
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 14, 2017:
Chrysle, you will need to take your puppy to the vet, yellow gums are not normal and can be indicative or liver problems or perhaps destruction of red blood cells (anemia). I don't want to scare you, but please get it checked out as soon as you can!
Chrysle on January 13, 2017:
Our puppy is 3months old, we recognize that he has yellow pale gums and pale hands, he has teary eyes and nose always sleep and less appetite. But this isnt his normal doing he is playful and active but now he was just weak and always sleepy. What does it mean ? Do my puppy have ill ? .... Please reply.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 09, 2016:
Wow, a year is a long time! I would hear the opinion of a second vet, this doesn't sound normal.Sounds like periodontal disease which is common at this age, did your vet suggest a dental cleaning?
Cheryl on December 07, 2016:
My 10 year old beagle mix has red swollen gums on right lower side lip. Treated with amoxicillin and animax ointment. Its been like that for a year now. She eats canned food and chews well but i know its sore.?Help?
Marlene on November 10, 2016:
My 6 year old spaniel has bright red gums. What could be the cause and how to treat her?
Amy1369 on August 30, 2016:
I have a 7 week old puppy. She was perfectly fine a few days ago, but now her gums are pale. She drinks water fine, but only licks her food and then she is done. She isn't really as active as she was. Someone told me it could be due to her being so cold she just wants to lay under her blanket, but I am concerned. Could you tell me what this means?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 09, 2016:
Charlotte, please have your vet take a peek, if these areas were another color before, it could be a sign of periodontal disease or some other disorder of the mouth.
Charlotte on July 11, 2016:
My 10 yr. Old pekignese has a pink tounge but I noticed roof of her mouth and the inside gum area and jawl areas are black.
What does this mean? She acts fine she eats well. Is it due to age? Help.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 31, 2016:
Hi Joy, not sure how it can be pink and pale at the same time. If she is happy and healthy it's likely not a problem, but something worthy to have checked by the vet just to err on the side of caution even more so if she's acting sick or odd.
Joy on May 30, 2016:
I just recently check my dog gum I notice it's pink and pale on her right side she eat good and healthy and active she is 8 years old she's mix breed chihuahua and yorkie. Is that I need to worry about and take her to vet ASAP ? I'm worry. Thank you.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 21, 2016:
The black is likely normal color as the Dalmatian and Labrador are both a breed that is likely to have black in their mouth. So you will just have to look at the main gum color. If your dog is ill though, please see your vet.
help on May 21, 2016:
what if my dog has pink bublegum gums but just by her teeth she has black markings she's a dalmation mixed with a labrador retriever and has 9 years PLEASE HELP
Tyra on May 05, 2016:
I was told by a vet that my dog has an auto immune disease but his gums are re and bloody looking.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 25, 2015:
Thanks DDE, it's important to recognize signs of trouble such as pale gums in dogs so quick action can be taken. Too many people lose their dogs waiting.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on January 24, 2015:
Dogs too need to be taken care of and you always write informative hubs on such important facts.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 23, 2015:
Thanks Mary, Yes, absolutely! I worked for the vets too (and later did some volunteering to assist vets) and we handled emergencies quite often and can attest that when doing patient triage for pets in the waiting room for emergencies, the state of the gums was one of the first things assessed. Thanks for the votes up, best regards.
Mary Hyatt from Florida on January 23, 2015:
When I worked with my Hubby, a Veterinarian, one of the first things he did when examining a dog was to check the gums. I have seen first hand pale (almost white) gums in dogs.
I never check my own dog's gums because thank goodness she is very active and healthy.
Very informative Hub as usual. I voted UP, etc.