Vitiligo is a disorder that can affect people as well as dogs. It alters the pigmentation of a dog's skin or fur and can be very concerning if a pet owner doesn't understand what it is. Thankfully, vitiligo is not a life threatening disease despite the visible changes it causes.
What Is Vitiligo in Dogs?
Vitiligo is a rare skin and fur disorder that affects melanocytes. Just like in people, melanocytes are cells in the skin that are responsible for coloration so if they are damaged, the skin or fur will lose its pigment. Vitiligo is not the same thing as fur turning gray naturally and was first noted in dogs in 1971. It is an even rarer disease in cats.
Signs of Vitiligo in Dogs
- Lightening or whitening of patches of fur, especially on the face or nose
- Lack of pigment in the skin
The apparent lightening or whitening of the skin, mucosa, and fur is obvious to most dog owners, especially if those areas used to be darkly colored. These classic signs of vitiligo can occur anywhere on a dog and can be symmetrical, too.
The gums and lips are the most common sites for the first signs of vitiligo. It can then spread to the muzzle, nasal planum, inside the mouth and onto the hard palate and mucosa, eyelids, eyelashes, and the ears. But vitiligo can also occur on the feet, nails, legs, neck, and other places on the body.
Causes of Vitiligo in Dogs
No one really understands exactly what causes melanocytes to be damaged and result in vitiligo. It is thought to be a hereditary condition, developing in dogs that have a familial history of the disorder, or an autoimmune disease due to its mysterious nature.
Diagnosing Vitiligo in Dogs
In order to diagnose a dog with vitiligo, a veterinarian will perform a full physical examination and review the medical history of your dog. Visualization of the depigmentation may be the only thing to aid a veterinarian in their diagnosis but skin biopsies may be recommended to confirm it or rule out other more serious conditions. Since vitiligo is not painful and does not cause any issues for a dog, it is not a concerning diagnosis.
Treatment of Vitiligo in Dogs
While there is no official, effective treatment protocol for a dog with vitiligo, some pet owners will try treatments that are sometimes used in people with the same skin disorder. Topical immunosuppressive medications and ultraviolet phototherapy are two options that can be discussed with your veterinarian but results are usually unimpressive. Since vitiligo is not a painful disorder and it does not interfere with a dog's daily life, most pet owners opt not to pursue any treatments, especially since they are not very effective. Some dogs amy even spontaneously regain some pigmentation in areas affected by vitiligo without treatment.
Dogs with vitiligo will still live a happy life and will not be negatively affected by the pigmentation changes. Dogs don't care what they look like so the changes often bother the owner more than the pet.
How to Prevent Vitiligo in Dogs
Dogs that have vitiligo should not be bred to decrease the likelihood of it passing on to offspring in case it is hereditary. Otherwise, since no one knows the exact cause of the condition, there is no real way to prevent it from occurring.
Other Reasons for Pigmentation Changes in Dogs
Aside from it naturally going gray as it ages, other issues besides vitiligo may cause a dog to lose pigmentation in its fur, skin, or mucosa. In addition to vitiligo, hypothyroidism, kidney, and liver disease as well as stress have been known to cause pigmentation changes in dogs.
Risk Factors for Developing Vitiligo
While any dog, including mixed breeds, can develop vitiligo, certain dog breeds may be at a higher risk of developing it. Those breeds include:
- Belgian Tervurens
- German Shepherds
- Doberman Pinschers
- German Shorthaired Pointers
- Old English Sheepdogs
- Miniature Dachshunds
- Giant Schnauzers
- Beauceron Shepherds
- Bernese Mountain Dogs
Is Vitiligo Contagious?
No, vitiligo is not contagious to people or other animals. It is not an infectious or zoonotic disease.
Tham, H.L., Linder, K.E. & Olivry, T. Autoimmune Diseases Affecting Skin Melanocytes in Dogs, Cats and Horses: Vitiligo and the Uveodermatological Syndrome: A Comprehensive Review. BMC Vet Res, 15, 251 (2019). doi:10.1186/s12917-019-2003-9