Most pet parents know to check a dog’s gums when they seem sick, but what do pale or white gums on a dog mean? Seeing pale gums can make us concerned, but most of us just don’t know what gum discoloration means.
This can lead to us drawing the wrong conclusion, and we may realize it too late that our dogs’ lives are at risk. So we must know that pale, white, yellow, or even angry red gums in our dogs can all indicate a life-threatening emergency.
So let’s look at the many possible causes of white or pale gums on a dog to help you figure out what’s going on with your pup.
What causes white or pale gums on a dog?
If a dog has pale or white gums, healthy, red blood cells are not reaching their extremities. This means it is always an emergency if you see pale gums on your dog. Anemia, heart disease, parasites, kidney disease, blood loss, blood clotting disorder, toxins, pathogens, hypothermia, or shock may all cause a dog to lose a healthy pink gum color.
Our dog’s mouths contain a wealth of information about their health. We have intensively covered the importance of using products like a good dog mouth rinse to avoid problems like tooth cavities and dental disease. But gums can tell us more about our dog’s current state of health than nearly any other symptom.
One of the primary reasons a dog has white gums is anemia. However, there are many causes of anemia in dogs, so we will briefly discuss all the primary reasons.
1. Parasites and tick-borne diseases affecting healthy blood flow to the gums
Ticks and parasite infestations can often cause pale gums because they carry diseases such as canine babesiosis or Lyme disease that attack the red blood cells or rob the dog of essential nutrients.
A bad case of heartworm can block the main arteries and constrict blood flow, resulting in pale gums and breathing problems. Hookworms in dogs also cause anemia and pale gum because they suck up so much blood. In fact, even fleas can suck up so much blood they make a dog anemic.
Therefore, if you see gums drained of color, look for signs of parasites, such as worms, ticks, and fleas. Especially if you see that your dog has pale gums, but not many other typical symptoms such as vomiting.
2. Toxins and substances that cause anemia and pale gums in dogs
Several poisoning substances attack a dog’s red blood cells and cause anemic, pale gums. Watch out for the following substances your dog could come into contact with:
- Onions, garlic, chives, spring onions, and other alliums. Plants from the allium family cause something called hemolytic anemia in dogs. Symptoms can often occur up to a week after eating these plants, so it’s easy to forget your dog ate garlic focaccia several days before.
- Thiols, such as those found in skunk spray, can cause Heinz-body anemia.
- Heavy metals such as lead and zinc are also toxins that attack the blood and their ability to carry oxygen. This leads to anemia, vomiting, and more. Zinc poisoning, in particular, breaks open red blood cells.
- Human medications such as paracetamol are extremely toxic to dogs and can cause deadly anemia. Another common human medication, Ibuprofen, and several other human NSAIDs can cause extreme internal bleeding and affect blood flow to the gums.
- Several rat poisons prevent blood from clotting and can also cause internal bleeding. One of the symptoms of rat poison is white gums.
Note that when dogs are poisoned, pale gums are not the only symptom. You should see vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, weakness, and other worrying signs.
3. Blood loss and clotting disorders may cause pale gums
If a dog is losing blood, there won’t be much left to turn the gums the healthy pink color they should be. Blood loss is obvious if there is some kind of accident or trauma such as when a dog is hit by a car.
But you may not always see blood loss. Internal bleeding can happen from injury, poisons, immune disease, ruptures, and other conditions. One illness to watch out for is blood clotting disorders such as von Willebrand’s disease.
If your dog has internal bleeding you may also see weakness, a distended abdomen, difficulty breathing, and collapse.
Intestinal bleeding is another common reason dogs become anemic and have paler gums.
4. Diseases that cause pale gums
A number of diseases may cause a dog’s gums to go white. The first is heart failure or other cardiovascular problems that affect blood flow. Kidney disease is another culprit.
Keep in mind that liver disease causes yellow gums rather than white ones, but we briefly touch on the different gum colors below.
Cancer and chemotherapy are unfortunately other possibilities. Doggy leukemias and other conditions that attack blood cells and marrow may cause white gums. This is why white gums in dogs always need veterinary attention.
Other chronic diseases can also suppress the red blood cell count, such as Cushing’s disease or hypothyroidism.
Certain viruses such as Parvo and Canine distemper turn the gums pale.
5. Hypothermia and shock can cause pale or white gums in a dog
A dog in below-freezing temperatures, or a dog in shock, will send all its blood to its vital organs to try to stay alive.
The most common example is dogs going to shock. Usually, this is an anaphylactic shock from an extreme allergic reaction, such as when stung by a bee. They may get pale gums, breathe very fast and then very slowly, itch, have a lot of swelling around the face, drool, vomit, or have diarrhea.
Likewise, a dog can go into shock after a traumatic event. You may see shallow or rapid breathing, weakness, thirst, and eventually collapse.
Dogs who are not built for cold weather may get hypothermia if they are out in the cold for too long. In this case, you may see their breathing speed up and then slow down. The dog may become slow to react, have dilated pupils, and may lose consciousness.
In both cases, your dog needs to see a vet immediately.
3. Nutritional causes of pale gums
Although rare, nutritional deficiencies can make dog gums pale. Deficiencies in iron, B vitamins, and protein can all affect the red blood cell count. In some cases, some nutrients can interfere with your dog’s ability to absorb others. For instance, too much calcium in the diet can prevent the body from absorbing iron.
Do white gums mean dehydration on a dog?
White gums do not mean your dog is dehydrated. It means your dog is not getting enough healthy red blood cells or oxygen to their gums. But a dog with pale gums can still be dehydrated.
To know if your dog is dehydrated, you can also use their gums to check their capillary refill time (CRT). To do this, press your thumb firmly against the gum until you make a pale, white spot.
Withdraw your thumb and time how long it takes for the blood to return. 1 to 2 seconds is a normal CRT and means your dog is hydrated. Longer than 2 seconds indicates dehydration.
Checking CRT is difficult when the gums are already pale, so you can pinch the skin on their heads and see how quickly it bounces back into place.
Dog gum color: Healthy vs. Unhealthy gums on a dog
Here is a quick guide to what the gum colors mean to a dog:
Pale pink gums
Pale pink indicates healthy dog gums. They should be moist. If they feel sticky, check for signs of dehydration.
Some dogs have naturally black or purple pigment (melanin) on their gums and tongues. This is normal and no reason to panic. If you notice any black sores or suspicious raised spots that appear, see your vet for a biopsy.
See this article if you notice a suspicious black spot on your dog’s tongue.
If you notice yellow gums or eye whites, your most likely culprit is liver disease.
When gums lose their color, it means that a dog is either losing blood, or its blood is weakened by anemia. They may also have disease an underlying disease or be in a state of shock. Whatever the reason, this is usually a serious emergency.
Blue gums closely overlap with white or pale gums. This means a lack of oxygen and is an emergency. Anything from an obstructed airway to Chronic Heart Failure can cause a dog’s gums to turn blue as they struggle to circulate oxygen.
Often blue-tinged gums are the next step after a dog’s gums turn white.
Bright Red gums
When gums turn cherry red, it’s usually a sign of inflammation, typically from gingivitis. But if your dog is overheating, it will pump more blood to their mouths to cool down. So it can also be a sign of heatstroke.
How to treat white gums in dogs
You cannot treat white gums in dogs alone, and there is certainly no effective “pale gums dog home remedy.” This is because pale gums are always a symptom of a very dangerous health issue. It could be a toxin or poison attacking their red blood cells, causing blood loss or organ failure. Either way, pale gums are an emergency, and your vet needs to diagnose the underlying cause.
You can speak to your veterinarians about remedies that may help your dog regain healthy blood when recovering. Sometimes organ meat like liver can boost their iron levels and B vitamins, helping to fight anemia. However, always speak to your vet before treating the problem yourself.
Pale or white gums on a dog are a sign of serious health issues. You will never see this symptom in isolation. Google searches like “dog white gums not eating,” “dog white gums vomiting,” “dog white gums heavy breathing” or “dog pale gums lethargy,” give you an idea of how sick these dogs usually are.
It’s uncommon to see pale gums in a dog still acting normal. However, it may be an early warning sign of a greater issue. Either way, make sure your dog gets veterinary care as quickly as possible.
Tamsin De La HarpeAuthor
Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions.
Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.