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Depigmentation Disorders in Dogs: Changing Skin Color

Posted November 23, 2014 in Dog Diseases & Conditions A-Z

Skin color is determined by melanocyte cells in the skin. Those cells produce melanin which gives skin its color. When skin is exposed to the sun, those cells are stimulated to produce more melanin. That’s how you get a suntan. But what can cause the opposite result?  Obviously dogs, like people, come in many different shades. (Dogs can even be albinos – or lacking in pigment altogether.) That means that some dogs are less pigmented to start with. But why might your dog lose that original coloration and develop depigmentation? Let’s discuss some of the possible reasons.

Dog close up

Skin color changing as a result of age
I’m sure you’ve known dogs that go gray as they get older – especially on their faces. According to the Veterinary Internal Medicine textbook, such age-associated graying is a result of decreasing numbers of melanocytes and occurs most frequently in German Shepherds, Labradors, Golden Retrievers and Irish Setters.

Skin color changing as a result season
There are other breeds of dogs that are prone to a seasonal lightening of the nasal planum (the hard, tough, hairless end of their nose). Sometimes referred to as “Snow Nose” these dogs (Siberian Huskies, Labradors and Golden Retrievers) can have darker noses in the summer months and lighter noses in the winter. These same breeds plus German Shepherds, Samoyeds, Afghan Hounds and Dobermans (among others) can also experience a gradual or waxing and lightening or fading of their nose color over time. This condition is known as “Dudley Nose1."

You may know people with vitiligo which, according to Davidson College research, is a progressive disease in which the melanocytes are gradually destroyed causing unpigmented areas on the skin. Dogs can also develop vitiligo. They, too, develop pigment loss from their skin or hair on their heads, but it can occur in other locations too. In some cases, antibodies against melanocytes have been identified in the serum of infected dogs indicating an immune component to the disorder. And skin biopsies of the affected areas will typically reveal a total lack of any remaining melanocytes.

What all three of these causes for depigmentation have is common is the fact that they are not a disease that can bother or hurt your dog at all. There is no reason to worry about them and there is nothing to be done to ‘correct’ them. The

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Mike has more than 35 years of experience in companion animal veterinary practice and is a valued member of IDEXX’s Pet Health Network team since 2013.