Reviewed by Paula Simons, DVM
As pet parents, we understand that as our dogs age, they will naturally develop white hair on their bodies, especially around their faces. Depigmentation that occurs in younger dogs is usually caused by vitiligo.
Vitiligo in dogs is a condition that causes a loss of pigment in the skin. This rare condition is considered harmless.
However, there may be underlying causes that require attention and treatment. In some cases, the underlying disease might look like vitiligo in the early stages.
In this post, you’ll learn the potential causes of vitiligo, clinical signs, and the difference between vitiligo and another type of autoimmune disease.
If you’re worried about new white patches of fur or skin on your dog, you’ve come to the right spot. Keep reading to find out how this skin condition will affect your dog and what you can do about it.
Vitiligo in Dogs – What is it?
Vitiligo is an inherited skin condition that causes the immune system to destroy the skin and hair pigment-producing cells. It is typically present at birth but isn’t noticed until young adulthood, which is roughly 12–24 months of age.
This uncommon skin condition causes the dog’s skin or fur to turn white. It can happen in one specific area or in different spots on the body. The condition causes the destruction of melanocytes (the cells responsible for producing color).
The Role of Reduced Melanocytes in Vitiligo
Dogs diagnosed with vitiligo have drastically reduced melanocytes in the affected area.
They can also have progressive depigmentation with patches of white skin over the nasal planum, lips, face, inner lining of the cheeks (buccal mucosa), and footpads, and the dog’s nails.
Most cases of vitiligo in dogs are hereditary. There are other possible causes, which are discussed further in this post.
Two Types of Vitiligo in Dogs You Should Know
There are two types of vitiligo in dogs. One type affects one part of the dog, and the other affects various parts of the body.
As the name suggests, this type of vitiligo only affects one area of the dog’s body.
Generalized vitiligo causes multiple white patches that can appear randomly or symmetrically over the body.
Potential Causes of Vitiligo in Dogs
Vitiligo is a type of autoimmune disease in dogs. Sometimes it’s caused by genetics, and sometimes there is an underlying condition. In order to get a conclusive diagnosis, the veterinarian may suggest certain diagnostic tests.
For the most part, vitiligo is inherited in dogs. In some cases, however, it can be caused by an autoimmune disease. In that case, the autoimmune system attacks and destroys the melanocytes which are responsible for creating color in the skin and hair.
Other potential causes of vitiligo in dogs may include:
- Stress (due to an underlying condition that is causing distress or pain)
- Toxin exposure
- Neurologic disease
Symptoms of Vitiligo in Dogs
The symptoms of vitiligo include the development of white patches over the skin and fur. Vitiligo doesn’t necessarily appear the same from dog to dog.
It usually starts as a white patch of skin or fur on the face or nose. It’s possible for some dogs to develop white spots all over the body. If you look closely, you may even notice a symmetrical pattern rather than just random spots.
An interesting feature of this condition is that it can come and go. Sometimes pigment loss comes back and sometimes it doesn’t.
Timeline of Vitiligo Spread
Vitiligo usually affects the face first, especially the nose. It can also cause areas around the eyes and lips to lose color. Spreading of the condition can occur over a three-to-six-month timeframe.
Specific Dog Breeds That May be More Susceptible Include:
- Golden retrievers
- Yellow Labradors
- Siberian huskies
- Doberman pinschers
- Old English sheepdogs
- Belgian Tervuren
- German shorthaired pointers
- Afghan hounds
- Irish setters
- German shepherd dogs
The Autoimmune Diseases That Look Like Vitiligo in Dogs
Uveodermatologic syndrome is a medical condition that occurs when the dog’s immune system destroys the body’s melanocytes. Melanocytes, as mentioned earlier in the post, are the cells that produce and contain melanin.
Melanin is the pigment that gives color to your eyes, skin, and hair. In domesticated mammals, melanocytes are found in the cochlea, eye, oral mucosa, and (less frequently) the meninges. The meninges refer to the three layers of membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord.
The Risk of Uveodermatologic Syndrome in Dogs
Uveodermatologic syndrome destroys the pigment-making cells of the skin and eyes. It’s actually the canine version of a similar condition in humans known as Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada (VKH).
Unfortunately, this syndrome can negatively impact the eyes. Sometimes the first sign that your dog has a problem is when he/she begins bumping into objects.
Signs and Symptoms of Uveodermatologic Syndrome in Dogs
In addition to vitiligo, dogs with this syndrome can be affected in many ways. Signs include:
- Painful, red eyes
- Light sensitivity
- Inflammation of the inner lining of the eye
- Vision changes
- Constricted pupils
- Cloudy eyes
- Premature whitening of the hair (usually occurs within 3 to 6 months of the eye symptoms)
- Vitiligo that presents on the nose, lips, eyelids, footpads, and scrotum.
- Signs typically appear when the dog is a young adult.
Breeds Most Commonly Affected by Uveodermatologic Syndrome
- Siberian huskies
- Alaskan malamutes
The Importance of Definitive Diagnosis
In order to get a definitive diagnosis that your dog has developed vitiligo and not another condition, a series of diagnostic tests may be required. These tests include:
- Physical Examination
- Blood Tests
- Skin Biopsy
Vitiligo on its own doesn’t typically need any treatment and remains only a cosmetic concern. However, if your dog is diagnosed with uveodermatologic syndrome, prompt treatment is recommended to prevent blindness.
Treatment Options for Dogs With Uveodermatologic Syndrome
Various medications are needed to suppress the overactive immune system. In addition, symptomatic care is started for the eyes and skin until the main illness is under control.
Aggressive treatment will probably be used in the beginning. As the disease is managed, the dosage of the medications will be reduced over time.
Long-term immunosuppressive therapy is used to manage this autoimmune condition. Regular eye exams are advised to maintain good ocular health. This is highly recommended to control this potentially blinding condition.
Medications Used to Treat The Condition
While treatment doesn’t cure the condition, it can help to offset the worst-case scenario of blindness. Treatment can go on for month to yearrs.
Systemic Corticosteroid Treatment
Medications like oral prednisone and azathioprine (immunosuppressive medication) may be administered aggressively in the beginning, and then at lower maintenance doses.
Topical steroids can be started at the same time as systemic medications to manage the condition.
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Vitiligo, on its own, isn’t considered a serious condition. The problems begin when secondary causes are found or if the dog is thought to have uveodermatologic syndrome.
Keep in mind that any changes to skin or fur that seem unusual should be reported to a veterinarian. Although vitiligo is considered a harmless condition, take note of any bleeding, crusting, itching, or scaling if it occurs.
The presence of these symptoms could indicate an underlying disease that should be diagnosed and treated by a licensed veterinarian.
I hope you enjoyed this post and were able to get the information you were looking for. Please come back again for more important content related to dog health. Make sure to subscribe to the newsletter as well! You’ll get updates on trending topics along with discounts and coupons on pet products.
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