If you’re a dog owner like me, there’s a pretty good chance that you worry about every little thing. Is your dog eating too much? Too little? Is he too fat, or too thin? Is he shedding too much? Not shedding enough? Is he happy? Should you buy him more toys? Is he getting the right dog food?
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This sort of thing is particularly difficult for new dog owners; sometimes, it seems as though everything is a potential cause for concern.
I was talking about this with Neila the other day over coffee. I told her I was thinking about doing some sort of blog related to anxiety in dog owners but not really sure how to approach it, and what topic I should deal with specifically.
Neila Is a Nasty, Nasty Woman!
Neila, I know you’re reading this. Remember how you grinned at me over your coffee cup? Much the same way as the Grinch who Stole Christmas used to grin before his heart grew three sizes?
Then, you said, “Well, Ash, you could tell them about that time you woke your vet up in the middle of the night to take a look at Gloria’s tummy.”
About Gloria and the 3 AM Call
Okay, this was a long time ago, and I’ve learned a lot since then. In fact, I’ve learned so much that my sister, Colleen, still refers to me (admiringly, I think) as the “FKIA.” The last three letters stand for “Know It All.” She won’t tell me what the first letter stands for, but I’m pretty sure it’s “Fantastic” or “Famous” or something equally complimentary.
Anyway, even FKIAs don’t get it right all the time.
Gloria, my first Boxer, was just a puppy, and I guess I was pretty much like any new parent: agonizing over every little thing. On this particular occasion, I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. Little 11-week-old Gloria was sleeping next to me. I turned on the bedside lamp so I wouldn’t trip over my own feet on the way to and from the bathroom, and when I got back, suitably purged, Gloria woke up and rolled over for a tummy rub.
Well, of course, when a dog needs a tummy rub, a tummy rub ought to get done! So I rubbed her little tummy and then leaned down to blow kisses. To my horror, I saw dark spots on my dog’s skin!
I was convinced that Gloria was in danger of dying, so I called the animal hospital. Kim was my vet at the time. Of course, since it was 3 am, I obviously wasn’t going to get her on the line, but I told the answering service that she needed to call me right away because I had an emergency with Gloria.
What kind of emergency, the service thingy wanted to know. “I don’t have time to go into it with you; my dog could be dying!” I said. In response to my obvious semi-hysteria, the aforementioned thingy told me that she’d try to get hold of Kim.
“Look,” I said, “Never mind having her call me. Just tell her I’ll meet her at the hospital; I don’t think there’s any time to waste!”
Then I drove through the dark, with my abysmally awful night vision, rushing Gloria to the vet.
Good Thing Some Vets Have a Sense of Humor
So, Kim had been dragged out of bed at an ungodly hour. For no good reason.
She took one look at Gloria’s tummy and burst out laughing. “Ash,” she said, “It’s hyperpigmentation!”
“Oh God… oh no… Kim, is she going to die? Is there anything you can do?”
“Ash, settle down! It means she has dark spots on her skin. It also means that you owe me double time for this emergency call.”
Then Kim tied her bathrobe up over her pajamas, escorted Gloria and me to the door, and said, “I’ll send you the bill.”
So, what do dark spots on your dog’s skin mean?
As you can tell from my story, much of the time they don’t really mean anything at all. And even when they do mean something, it’s not a “get your dog to the vet in the middle of the night” sort of something.
So, let’s talk about dark spots on your dog’s skin, their causes and treatment.
What Causes Dark Spots on a Dog’s Skin?
As you have seen from my story, much of the time, dark spots on a dog’s skin are due to nothing more nor less than hyperpigmentation. You could think of them as something along the lines of freckles on a human’s skin – caused by melanin, a pigmentation that makes certain areas of the skin darken when exposed to light.
Unless hyperpigmentation is accompanied by skin irritation, bleeding, or fluid-filled bumps, it’s harmless. Hyperpigmentation could increase as your dog ages, but again, unless it’s accompanied by other symptoms, it’s probably not anything that you need to worry about.
There can be causes of dark spots on your dog’s skin other than hyper pigmentation, though.
1. Cushing’s Disease
This is also known as hyperadrenocorticism. With this condition, your dog’s adrenal glands produce too much of certain hormones. It can be caused by tumors in the pituitary or adrenal glands. Another cause can be over-using steroidal medications.
Usually, if your dog has Cushing’s disease, there will be symptoms other than dark spots on your dog’s skin. You’ll also likely notice that he’s lethargic, drinking and peeing a lot, and might also have a distended abdomen.
The condition can often be treated using medications. In severe cases, surgery may be needed.
Hypothyroidism is a condition in which your dog’s thyroid glands are underactive, and don’t produce enough thyroid hormone. Some breeds are more prone to this condition than others. In fact, Boxers have a predisposition to hypothyroidism, so maybe you can cut me a bit of slack for panicking over Gloria! Irish Setters, Golden Retrievers, Dobermans and Dachshunds are also vulnerable to hypothyroidism, and if your dog is neutered or spayed, that also increases the risk.
In addition to dark spots on your dog’s skin, hypothyroidism can manifest as flaky skin, hair loss (especially on the tail and the hind legs), weight gain, muscle loss, persistent infections in the toenails and ears, and lethargy. The condition is progressive, and is usually treated by means of thyroid supplements.
This is bleeding under your dog’s skin. With this condition, even a minor injury can cause the capillaries (small blood vessels) under the skin to rupture, releasing blood into the tissues. If your dog develops dark spots on his skin following an injury, wait and see if the discoloration goes away in a few days. If it doesn’t, you should see your vet to determine if your dog has vasculitis, and to develop a course of treatment.
4. Yeast Infection
If the dark spots on your dog’s skin look something like dirt, it could be an indication that he has a yeast infection. Usually, the spots will appear in the groin area, and will appear to be flush with the skin.
Yeast infections are generally due to too much Malassezia pachydermatitis, which is a fungus that is often found between your dog’s toes, around the anal sacs and rectum, or in the ear canal. It’s not all that harmful, but it can be accompanied by intense itching. It can be treated using oral medications or shampoos that contain peroxide, chlorhexidine or ketoconazole. If the area that is affected is not overly large, your vet can also prescribe a cream to ease the condition.
So, there you have it. Pretty much everything you need to know about what could cause dark spots on your dog’s skin and now you know that your dog is not likely in danger of dying.
I would suggest, though, that if a dark spot seems to be swelling alarmingly, or if it’s accompanied by a discharge of pus or blood, it would be a good idea to book an appointment with your vet. You don’t need to wake anyone up in the middle of the night the way I did, but any time that you’re concerned about your dog’s health, the cost of a veterinary appointment is a pretty small thing when it comes to ensuring your dog’s wellbeing and contributing to your own peace of mind.
The Final Word
Most of the time, dark spots on your dog’s skin are just that: dark spots, nothing more, and nothing harmful. Occasionally, though, they can be indicative of conditions like Cushing’s Disease, hypothyroidism and vasculitis.
It’s always best, if you’re not sure what’s causing the dark spots on your dog’s skin, to have your vet take a look. If your friends end up laughing at you later (Nice, Neila; really nice!), that’s not the worst thing in the world.
The worst thing in the world is wondering if something is wrong with your dog, ignoring the symptoms, and then finding out later that you should have taken action.
I panicked because I loved Gloria to distraction, and I’m not going to apologize for that. I know a lot more now than I did back then, so I don’t think I’ll be waking a vet up again in the middle of the night over what is essentially a non-issue any time soon. But given my level of knowledge (or lack thereof) back in the day, I think I did the right thing. I didn’t take a chance with Gloria’s health.
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Gloria passed at a ripe old age, with Dr. Kim and me at her side (I told you about her passing in 11 Essential End of Life Care Steps for Your Dog) and still with those cute little dark spots on her tummy. She was a good dog; Kim was a good vet, and I think I was a good dog parent even if I was a bit obsessive.