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Ten Reasons Your Dog Is Losing Color on the Lips and What to Do About It

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Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He has been working with dogs for more than 40 years.

Lip color changes can be very subtle or very graphic.

Lip color changes can be very subtle or very graphic.

Why Is My Dog Losing Color on His Lip?

There are quite a few causes for dogs losing the color on their lips: medical, genetic, and environmental. Dog skin has color because of melanin produced by cells called melanocytes, and when they die or are not able to produce pigment the skin changes color, often becoming pink.

The amount of color in a dog's lips vary by breed, but since you know what is normal for your dog you will be able to recognize changes sooner than anyone else. Here are some possible causes for your dog's color loss:

  • lupus
  • allergies
  • pyoderma
  • lymphoma
  • vitiligo
  • uveodermatologic syndrome
  • physical causes (drooling, age, sunburn, injury, etc.)
Lupus will often present on the nose but the lips can lose their color first.

Lupus will often present on the nose but the lips can lose their color first.

Lupus

You may notice your dog's lips changing or you may notice crusting on the nose. The disease may be genetic in origin but it is an autoimmune problem: the dog thinks that some of the cells in their own body are foreign and attacks them.

About a fourth of dogs that have discoid lupus, which just causes skin changes, develop systemic lupus, which affects the whole body.

In over half of the dogs studied discoid lupus cleared up with only prednisone, a medication that depresses the immune system. (1) When only the lips are affected, treatment can be as simple as using a topical corticosteroid and a course of antibiotics.

Dog Breeds Affected by Lupus

A lot of dog breeds can have lupus but if you have one of these dogs you should suspect it more often:

What You Can Do at Home

If your dog has a crusty nose and changes to his lips keep him out of the sun as much as possible. Some dogs respond to just topical steroids but others need oral prednisone and antibiotics so you will need to see your vet so this can be diagnosed and treated properly.

Food and contact allergies can cause color loss on your dogs lips.

Food and contact allergies can cause color loss on your dogs lips.

Allergies

Several types of allergies can cause dark lips to turn pink. Contact allergies are usually caused by a plastic feeding bowl or a favorite plastic toy and food allergies happen when a pet becomes allergic to some protein source in their normal food.

Changes to the lips are common but there is usually swelling and red skin. Dogs itch a lot and will run around the house rubbing their muzzle against the floor trying their best to scratch it. Some dogs scratch the nose with their nails and develop a secondary infection.

Dog Breeds With Allergies

Like with lupus, all dog breeds can be affected by allergies, but some are more prone than others: (2)

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What You Can Do at Home

If your dog has color loss to his lips from allergies you are going to see a lot of other signs too, most likely itching. You can treat allergies at home in a number of ways (antihistamines, medicated baths, etc.) but the most important thing you can do is find out what your dog is allergic to and remove it from his environment.

If it is a contact allergy, it may be enough to change their bowl. If it is a food allergy you will need to put them on a special diet (hydrolyzed or elimination diet) for several months to see if the symptoms go away.

Pyoderma

Dogs that lose their lip pigment secondary to pyoderma have swollen lips, crusting, and sometimes ulcers and discharge. They usually have bad breath and may be tender and find it hard to chew.

Your vet can take a swab and determine what kind of bacteria is causing this problem and whether or not antibiotics will be helpful. It can be tough to clear up and will probably come back but can be prevented.

Dog Breeds That Suffer From Lip Fold Pyoderma

Any dog that has lip folds can have color changes secondary to an infection but this problem is a lot more common in breeds with very droopy lips:

  • English Bulldog
  • French Bulldog
  • Saint Bernard
  • Basset Hound
  • Pug
  • King Charles Cavalier Spaniel

What You Can Do at Home

It is easy to prevent lip fold pyoderma. The hair around the lips needs to be clipped short in some breeds and then the lips can be cleaned with benzoyl peroxide or a mild product like 2% chlorhexidine soap.

Some dogs only need their lips cleaned a few times a week but others will become infected if it is not done every day. If the dog keeps having problems even with cleaning, then some will need surgery to remove the excessive folds around the lips. (3)

Vitiligo is a loss of pigment, in this case the lips.

Vitiligo is a loss of pigment, in this case the lips.

Vitiligo, Lymphoma, and Uveodermatologic Syndrome

Vitiligo

Dogs with the genes for vitiligo might lose the color in their lips and other areas on the body. They are not inflamed at all and there are no other symptoms.

The skin can be biopsied to rule out other diseases, but if the dog has vitiligo, there is no treatment.

Dog Breeds Affected by Vitiligo

What You Can Do at Home

There is no treatment available and nothing needs to be done. Some dogs get better even without any therapy.

Lymphoma

Even though about 20% of all dogs that develop cancer have lymphoma, only about 3 to 8% of those cases are epitheliotropic lymphoma, which effects the lips. (4) Dogs with allergies are more likely to develop this type of skin cancer.

There is inflammation with this type of cancer but it has to be diagnosed with a biopsy. The tumor needs to be removed and the dog will probably need chemotherapy.

Dog Breeds Commonly Affected By Lymphoma (5)

  • Doberman
  • Rottweiler
  • Boxer
  • Bernese Mountain Dog
  • Bulldogs, Golden Retrievers, and other breeds can also develop this cancer
  • Epitheliotropic lymphoma is more common in Cocker Spaniels

What You Can Do at Home

Lymphoma tumors on the lips have to be removed and the dog has to be treated with chemotherapy. If you cannot have this done dogs usually only live a few months.

Dogs can be given prednisone, an anti-inflammatory steroid to decrease signs but do not usually live any longer unless something else is done. Fish oil may keep the dogs alive longer but it does not treat the cancer. (6)

Uveodermatologic Syndrome

This autoimmune disease shows up with lip color changes but is much more serious because it also effects the eyes, ears, and nervous system. The first sign, sometimes even before the changes to the skin, is often in the eyes:

  • squinting in the light
  • excessive tears
  • cloudy eyes
  • red eyes
  • bleeding into the eye

Dogs with eye changes need to be taken to the veterinarian immediately and put on a drug to suppress the immune system. They can recover but if not treated the disease can lead to blindness.

Dog Breeds Affected By Uvedermatologic Syndrome (7)

This disease has been seen in many dog breeds but most commonly is found in:

What You Can Do at Home

Since this disease affects the eyes and can lead to permanent blindness, there is not much you can do at home. It may help to keep the dog out of sunlight until you can take them to the vet.

Some old dogs that grow grey around the muzzle will also develop pale lips.

Some old dogs that grow grey around the muzzle will also develop pale lips.

Physical Causes

Old Age

One of the most common causes of skin changes around the dog's head is old age. The muzzle becomes gray and sometimes the lips change color too. Dogs with old age may have bad breath from dental disease but the smell is not from the lips and they are not inflamed.

Wounds to the Lips

Dark lips will turn pink after a wound. The lip color change is usually small and easy to identify even if you do not see the original wound.

Drooling

Excessive drooling will make a dog more prone to develop pyoderma even when they do not have excessive lip folds. Even without pyoderma, however, the lips look different with dogs that drool a lot.

What You Can Do at Home for Physical Color Changes

If your dog has color changes due to physical reasons there is no inflammation and no treatment needed.

Do I Need Take My Dog to the Vet When the Lip Color Changes?

There are numerous problems on this list that should encourage you to take your dog to the veterinarian. If there is color loss but the skin is not inflamed or cancerous, there is not going to be any treatment, but even if it is only a mild infection secondary to an allergy, the dog can do a lot better and be in less pain when taken care of correctly.

When you notice any of these signs in a dog with lip color change, take them to the vet as soon as possible:

  • foul breath
  • excessive drooling
  • crusty nose
  • cloudy or red eyes
  • itchy or reddish muzzle
  • swollen lymph nodes

If it is something more serious, the sooner it is treated the better.

Sources

(1) Olivry T, Linder KE, Banovic F. Cutaneous lupus erythematosus in dogs: a comprehensive review. BMC Vet Res. 2018 Apr 18;14(1):132. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5907183/

(2) White, Steven, Allergies in Dog, Merck Veterinary Manual. https://www.msdvetmanual.com/dog-owners/skin-disorders-of-dogs/allergies-in-dogs

(3) Reiter, Alexander, Disorders of the Mouth in Dogs, Merck Veterinary Manual, 2018. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/dog-owners/digestive-disorders-of-dogs/disorders-of-the-mouth-in-dogs

(4) Bhang, Dong Ha et al, Epitheliotropic cutaneous lymphoma (mycosis fungoides) in a dog, Journal of Veterinary Science 2006; 7(1): 97-99. https://synapse.koreamed.org/articles/1041702

(5) Comazzi S, Marelli S, Cozzi M, Rizzi R, Finotello R, Henriques J, Pastor J, Ponce F, Rohrer-Bley C, Rütgen BC, Teske E. Breed-associated risks for developing canine lymphoma differ among countries: an European canine lymphoma network study. BMC Vet Res. 2018 Aug 6;14(1):232. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6090884/

(6) Ogilvie GK, Fettman MJ, Mallinckrodt CH, Walton JA, Hansen RA, Davenport DJ, Gross KL, Richardson KL, Rogers Q, Hand MS. Effect of fish oil, arginine, and doxorubicin chemotherapy on remission and survival time for dogs with lymphoma: a double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled study. Cancer. 2000 Apr 15;88(8):1916-28. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10760770/

(7) Kang MH, Lim CY, Park HM. Uveodermatologic syndrome concurrent with keratoconjunctivitis sicca in a miniature poodle dog. Can Vet J. 2014 Jun;55(6):585-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4022030/

This article is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from your veterinarian. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

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