Dermatologists place a high value on paleness because the less sun you get, the lower your risk for skin cancer. Veterinarians, however, have always preferred the color pink -- at least when they are looking at your pet's gums. When the gums change from bubble-gum pink to pale, oxygen is probably in short supply, and there is an internal problem that needs to be taken care of.
Pale gums usually mean that a pet doesn't have enough red blood cells, a condition called anemia. Anemia is serious because red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. When there aren't enough of them, oxygen levels fall, and pets get weak and tired, says Knox Inman, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in West River, Maryland.
Parasites are one of the most common causes of anemia. Dogs and cats produce just enough red blood cells to stay healthy. When fleas, hookworms, or other blood-sucking parasites are drinking their fill, there may not be enough blood to go around. "I see a lot of pets that are badly anemic because of fleas," says Donald W. Zantop, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Fallston, Maryland.
Pale gums may be a sign of internal bleeding, resulting from ulcers or even cancer, says Dr. Zantop. Internal bleeding that goes on long enough can also cause anemia.
The light-colored gums can also be caused by a serious condition called autoimmune hemolytic anemia, in which the immune system mistakenly destroys red blood cells, says Dr. Inman. This type of anemia may be hereditary, with cocker spaniels, Shetland sheepdogs, collies, English springer spaniels, Old English sheepdogs, Irish setters, and poodles having the highest risk. Cats can get it, too, but much less often than dogs.
Finally, anemia may be a side effect of medications. Drugs such as estrogen, chloramphenicol (an antibiotic), and phenylbutazone (taken for pain) may inhibit the blood marrow from producing red blood cells, says Dr. Inman. Dogs that are taking aspirin for pain will sometimes develop ulcers and internal bleeding.
Pale gums don't always mean that your pet has anemia. After a serious accident, for example, blood pressure can fall to dangerously low levels because the heart is so busy pumping blood to vital organs that it neglects more-distant regions like the gums, toes, or the tips of the ears. This drop in blood pressure and the resulting pale gums mean that a pet is going into shock and needs emergency care, says Dr. Zantop.
See Your Vet If...
- Your pet can't open his mouth or is having trouble opening it
- He can't close his mouth
- He won't eat or has difficulty chewing or swallowing
- His tongue, lips, or muzzle are swollen
- There is a foreign object stuck in his mouth
- His gums are red and swollen, or there is bleeding
- Your pet is drooling or panting excessively
- His tongue or gums are blue or pale
- Your pet has ulcers on his tongue
- He is gagging frequently
- There is a lump anywhere on his face
- He is pawing frequently at his mouth or face
- There is a discharge from his mouth or nose that lasts two days or longer
- His breath is consistently bad
- Your pet's nose is dry, crusty, or bleeding
- His mouth is foaming, or he's grinding his teeth
- There is dried saliva around the mouth
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