What causes skin color changes in dogs?

Published on
Last updated on
11 min read
What causes skin color changes in dogs? - A black and white English Setter sleeping on a couch

Dogs have a wide variety of normal skin colors, and it may even be normal for their skin tone to change over time. However, some skin color changes in dogs point to an underlying issue that needs to be addressed by a vet. Read on if you have ever wondered:

  • Is my dog’s skin color normal?
  • What do different skin colors mean, and why do they happen?
  • Should I seek veterinary help for my dog’s skin color change?
  • How are skin changes diagnosed and treated?

Skin discoloration can occur in dogs due to a variety of factors. It’s important for pet owners to know what changes are normal and when to seek help for changes if they occur.

What is a healthy skin color in dogs?

Natural skin color varies in dogs, just like in people. Healthy canine skin tones range in shades of pink, tan, brown, gray, and black. A dog’s skin can also have darker pigmented spots, even if their coat colors are not spotted. Areas with thinner skin, such as on the ears, may be pinker or lighter in color than the rest of the body.

What do different skin pigments mean in dogs?

A dog’s skin color can change for a variety of reasons. Some color changes are normal, while others can indicate a major medical emergency.

Black skin

A dog may have naturally dark skin or black spots on the skin. Skin that is turning dark brown or black, known as hyperpigmentation, has many causes and may or may not be normal for your dog. Hyperpigmentation in dogs can be hereditary or a symptom of an underlying disease. Some dog breeds are genetically predisposed to hyperpigmentation. It is best to get hyperpigmentation checked by your vet, especially if it is accompanied by thickened skin, itch, a bad odor, or hair loss.

Red skin

Skin turning red indicates some kind of skin inflammation, irritation, or burn. Watch for other symptoms such as hair loss, skin odor, itchiness, or scabbed, scaly skin. Tear staining, especially in white dogs, may result in the localized skin and coat color changing to a brown-red color.

Purple or blue skin

Some dog breeds, such as chow chows, blue terriers, and Shar Peis, have a natural, permanent blue tint to their skin, gums, and tongue that’s present all the time. This is normal and not a cause for concern. Outside this of known, normal blue pigmentation, a much more serious cause of blue skin is called cyanosis. Cyanosis occurs when blood oxygen levels are dangerously low. Cyanosis describes a blue or purple hue that’s usually easiest to see on the gums or tongue, but other parts of the skin may also be affected. When the color of a dog’s gums, tongue, or skin changes to a shade of blue or purple, they need emergency veterinary attention. Bruising can also cause a dog’s skin to temporarily become blue or purple in localized areas after injuries or surgery.

Yellow skin

Skin, eyes, or gums turning yellow is called jaundice or icterus and occurs when the liver is failing. A dog’s skin may also turn yellow, but jaundice is most noticeable in the whites of the eyes, the skin lining the insides of the ear flaps, and on the gums. Any sign of jaundice in dogs requires prompt medical attention.

Loss of skin color

In contrast to dogs who have pale pink or tan skin throughout their lives, dogs that have darker skin tones can lose skin pigmentation and become paler for a variety of reasons. The thick, textured skin covering the nose is most commonly affected. Scars may appear lighter than surrounding skin. Dogs may also have vitiligo, a rare skin disorder where patches of skin lose their pigment over time.

Why is my dog’s skin changing colors?

Skin color changes have a wide range of potential causes. These can range in severity from normal to life-threatening and may be difficult to pinpoint without diagnostic testing. “If the skin doesn’t change in any other way and the dog is acting totally fine, it’s possible the color change may be normal, explains Vetster veterinarian Dr. Jo Myers. “Since it can be difficult to determine the cause of a skin color change, always speak to a veterinarian before deciding what steps to take or if it’s okay to ignore it.”

A graphic of the quote above

Skin infections and irritation

Fungal or bacterial infections are common in dogs and often cause red, inflamed skin. Fungal skin infections that have been going on for a long time may cause the skin to become thick, rough, and gray - like an elephant’s. Skin irritation from allergies can also lead to skin inflammation, as well as increasing the likelihood of secondary infections. An area of skin that experiences regular friction and inflammation may also turn dark over time. Sunburn can result in red skin, but typically only affects hairless skin in canines.

Genetics and age

A dog’s skin color can change based on their breed, genetics, and age. Some individuals change color as they grow from puppies to adult dogs. Others may show skin pigment changes as they become seniors. Some breeds of dogs develop “snow nose” if they live in areas with cold winters where their nose dramatically lightens in the winter months. Finally, there are some genetic disorders that affect different breeds. These changes are usually harmless, but not always - so it’s best to see a veterinarian to determine the underlying cause.

Saliva or tear stains

Dogs can have the areas around their eyes, nose, and mouth turn a brown-reddish color from tears and saliva stains. Some dogs consistently have harmless tear stains due to pigment found in the tears, but tear stains may indicate irritation or infection if they develop in a dog who doesn’t usually have them.

Other health issues

There are a wide variety of pet health conditions that can cause skin color changes. These include but are not limited to:

What should I do if my dog’s skin is changing colors?

It’s always best for pet owners to talk to a vet when skin color changes are seen in case they are related to an underlying health condition that needs attention. Look for other symptoms such as changes in skin texture, hair loss, fur changes, or other signs of disease.

When skin tone changes are an emergency in dogs

Seek emergency veterinary attention if:

  • The lips, tongue, or gums are suddenly turning blue, purple, pale, or white
  • Bruises are growing in size, especially on the belly
  • A dog’s eyes, ears, or gums are yellow

Other skin color changes are often not an emergency, but warrant a vet consultation. Online triage can help if you are unsure if the skin change is an emergency before you head to the ER.

How will a vet diagnose and treat my dog’s skin color changes?

A physical examination and diagnostic tests are often needed to determine the underlying cause of skin changes. These can include skin biopsies or scrapes, blood work, urinalysis, and other tests. Not every skin color change needs treatment, but when necessary, it may involve:

  • Parasite prevention and control
  • Antibiotics or antifungals
  • Medicated shampoos or topical treatments
  • Allergy treatments and maintenance
  • Food trial and diet change
  • Medication or surgery for an underlying condition

Emergencies such as cyanosis or internal bleeding may require emergency stabilization and treatment in an ER. If you are unsure if your canine companion’s skin color change is normal, an online vet can help quickly triage your pet and discuss potential reasons for the change.

FAQ - What causes skin color changes in dogs?

Why did my dog’s skin go from pink to black in color?

Some dogs experience hyperpigmentation, or the darkening of skin, as they age or due to chronic inflammation. This is especially common with itchy skin from allergies, and is most noticeable on the armpits, belly, and feet. Certain breeds, such as dachshunds, are more likely to develop benign hyperpigmentation, which is harmless. If darkening skin is seen with other health or skin issues, it’s best to see a vet.

Why is my dog’s skin turning pale?

Some individual dogs experience hypopigmentation, or loss of skin color, as they age. Others develop “snow nose” in the winter months, where their nose turns light in color. If a dog’s lips or gums are suddenly turning pale, seek emergency medical care.

Is it normal for a dog’s skin to be dark?

Dogs’ skin tones vary, just like in humans. Many dogs have dark brown to black skin naturally. Some dogs can experience dark spots or patches due to chronic friction or irritation. Others can turn darker as they age. However, there are skin diseases that can cause patches of skin to turn a darker color, so it’s best to talk to a vet when hyperpigmentation is seen.

Why is my dog’s skin changing color?

Color changes in the skin can happen naturally in many dogs but may also be a sign of an underlying condition that needs veterinary attention, such as atopy (allergies), contact dermatitis, and bacterial or fungal infections. It’s best to talk to a vet any time you notice changes in your dog’s skin or coat.