Vitiligo (vi-ti-LIE-go) is a disorder that alters the pigmentation of a dog's skin or hair, creating patches that appear to bleached. Although it may look alarming, especially if it progresses to larger areas, vitiglio is not harmful to a dog's health. Certain breeds are more likely to develop this condition due to genetic factors, and humans can also also be affected by vitiglio, but it is not contagious.
What Is Vitiligo?
Vitiligo is a rare skin and hair disorder that affects melanocytes. Just like in people, melanocytes are cells in the skin that are responsible for coloration. If they are altered or damaged, the skin and/or coat will lose its pigment. Vitiligo is not the same thing as hair turning gray or white with age.
Symptoms of Vitiligo in Dogs
The lightening or whitening of the skin, mucosa (gums), and hair is the classic sign of vitiligo. The gums and lips are the most common sites for the first appearance of vitiligo. It can spread inside the mouth and to the muzzle, eyelids, eyelashes, and ears. Vitiligo can also occur on the feet, nails, legs, neck, and other places on the body.
Causes of Vitiligo
No one understands exactly what causes melanocytes to be altered or damaged in the absence of trauma, resulting in vitiligo's characteristic lightened patches.
The most likely causes include:
- Genetics–a hereditary condition in dogs that have a familial history of the disorder
- Autoimmune disease in which a dog's tissues are damaged by its immune system
While any dog, including mixed breeds, can develop vitiligo, certain dog breeds may be at a higher risk of developing it, including:
- Belgian Tervuren
- German shepherd
- Doberman pinschers
- German shorthaired pointers
- Old English sheepdogs
- Miniature dachshunds
- Giant schnauzers
- Beauceron shepherds
- Bernese mountain dogs
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 a diagnosis, but skin biopsies may be recommended to confirm it or rule out other conditions such as hypothyroidism, kidney, or liver disease.
There is no effective treatment protocol for a dog with vitiligo, but concerned pet owners sometimes try treatments that have been 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 the 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 treatments, especially since they are costly, lack efficacy, and may even be dangerous to a dog's health.
Occasionally, dogs spontaneously regain some pigmentation in areas affected by vitiligo.
Prognosis for Dogs with Vitiligo
Vitiligo is not painful and does not cause any problems for a dog, so dogs are perfectly able to live a happy life without any negative effects from the pigmentation changes.
How to Prevent Vitiligo
Dogs that have vitiligo should not be bred to decrease the likelihood of it passing on to offspring. Otherwise, since no one knows the exact cause of the condition, there is no real way to prevent it from occurring.