Gum Color Is a Good Indicator of Health
Pale gums spell trouble, as do purple ones.
Jon Geller, DVM
Q. I have a 6-year-old Siberian Husky-German Shepherd mix. She gets plenty of exercise, has a good appetite, and plays normally. She's a bit thin right now, but otherwise, she's her normal self. My concern is that I've noticed within the last week that her gums and her gums have turned from a normal pink to a semi-dark rosy pink. Is this something I need to be concerned about? What could be causing this?
A. You are a very astute dog owner. Most dog owners rarely check, or notice, a change in the color of their dog's gums. One time we had a Chow Chow's owner call our emergency hospital in a panic because her dog's gums were black. This is normal; she had never noticed before.
Veterinarians use gum color, and any change in gum color, as an indicator of different medical conditions. Normal gums on a dog are pink and moist, except in cases where they are pigmented, such as the Chow Chow mentioned above.
Pale or whitish gums are the most concerning, because they indicate a lack of red blood cells, also known as anemia. This can be caused by blood loss or other diseases where red blood cells are being destroyed, or not made in adequate numbers by the bone marrow. Usually pale gums indicate a veterinary emergency.
Purplish gums are called cyanotic, and occur when there is a lack of adequate oxygen. One of the important parts of blood, hemoglobin, must bind with and carry oxygen throughout the bloodstream. When oxygen is not available, the gums will acquire a purplish tinge due to excess hemoglobin without oxygen. Some dogs' gums may only be intermittently purple, such as after exercising when they use more oxygen and cannot replace it adequately. Dogs with cyanotic gums should also be seen immediately by a veterinarian.
Dry, or tacky, gums can indicate dehydration, but this is a more subtle change that may not always be consistent. When you touch the gums with your finger, they may feel sticky if they are dry.
Bright red gums are more challenging to interpret. They can indicate anything from dental disease to a blood-borne infection. In the case of your dog, I would definitely recommend a physical exam by your local veterinarian. If your dog is showing any other signs of illness such as lethargy, loss of appetite, or vomiting, she should be seen immediately.
Gums that are very inflamed and reddened along the tooth line are probably infected, a condition known as periodontitis. Regular dental cleanings, including scaling and root planing, are required to prevent and treat this condition. Badly infected gums will sometimes ooze pus and have a foul odor, a sure sign of serious dental disease.
Good luck and thank you for bringing up an important topic. Gum color is an indicator that dog owners can use at home to monitor their dogs' general and dental health. Always let your veterinarian know of any noticeable change in gum condition.
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