By JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
Vitiligo is an uncommon skin condition that causes skin to lose its natural pigment, a process called depigmentation. In addition to affecting the skin, vitiligo can also cause hair to turn white. Like humans, dogs and cats can develop vitiligo. Although your dog or cat may start to look a little funny with patches of white skin and fur, there is no need to worry. Vitiligo is painless and won’t bother your pet at all.
Here’s everything you need to know about vitiligo so you can continue loving your pet, even as his skin and fur turn white.
Causes of Vitiligo in Dogs and Cats
The skin contains cells called melanocytes that produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color. Vitiligo occurs when melanocytes are destroyed or die off.
Most cases of vitiligo in pets are hereditary. Certain dog breeds are at a higher genetic risk of developing this condition:
- Siberian Huskies
- Belgian Tervuren
- Golden Retrievers
- Yellow Labradors
- German Shepherds
- Doberman Pinscher
- Old English Sheepdogs
- German Shorthaired Pointer
Sometimes, vitiligo can be caused by an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases cause the immune system to attack the body instead of foreign substances. With vitiligo, an autoimmune disease attacks and destroys melanocytes.
Other potential causes of vitiligo are stress, exposure to toxins, and neurologic disease. The stress may be due to an underlying medical condition that’s causing discomfort.
Types of Vitiligo
Vitiligo can be categorized into two main types:
- Focal vitiligo affects only one area. In dogs, vitiligo that affects only the nose is called “snow nose.”
- Generalized vitiligo causes multiple white patches in random or symmetric patterns across the body. In cats, generalized vitiligo can become so extensive that it produces a “cobweb” or “snowflake” appearance of white fur.
Symptoms of Vitiligo
In dogs and cats, vitiligo starts at a young age and progressively destroys melanocytes. As the melanocytes die off, the skin in the affected area turns white or pink. The fur covering the affected skin also turns white.
Vitiligo commonly affects the face first, particularly the nose. Other areas of the face that might lose pigment include the lips and the area around the eyes.
Vitiligo that spreads beyond the face can affect the footpads and other parts of the body. The full extent of the spread, if any, will occur within three to six months of the first appearance of vitiligo. Once the affected areas turn white, they might stay that way, re-pigment, or even wax and wane.
If you have a cat, take note that vitiligo is more easily noticeable in black cats but can affect cats of any color.
Inflammation, skin lesions, and dander are rare in body areas affected by vitiligo.
If you notice your dog or cat’s fur is suddenly starting to turn white, take your pet to your veterinarian for further examination. It will be important to determine if there is a medical condition causing the depigmentation.
During the appointment, let your veterinarian know when you first noticed the vitiligo and where it first appeared on your pet’s body. Because stress may cause vitiligo, tell your veterinarian if your pet has been more stressed than usual at home.
After taking a close look at your pet’s skin and fur, your veterinarian will perform a few diagnostic tests. She will take a blood sample to rule out medical causes of vitiligo. Your veterinarian will also take a skin scraping from an affected area and look at the skin sample under the microscope. To get an even closer at the skin, your veterinarian might take a skin biopsy, which would show a lack of melanocytes in the affected area.
Treatment and Management
Currently, there are no available treatments for vitiligo that will re-pigment your pet’s affected skin and fur. However, because vitiligo causes no discomfort, your dog or cat will be just fine living the rest of his or her life with this condition.
There are several management options for vitiligo that you can discuss with your veterinarian. For example, some veterinarians recommend increasing exposure to the sun to stimulate production of new melanocytes. If blood tests revealed a medical cause of your pet’s vitiligo, your veterinarian will prescribe treatments for that medical condition. Reducing stress, whether by making the home environment less stressful or treating the underlying medical condition, may improve vitiligo.
If the sight of white patches is bothersome to you, consider asking your veterinarian to tattoo the areas of depigmented skin.
It has been suggested that supplementing a pet’s diet with omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin C can help manage vitiligo. However, to date, there is little research evidence to support nutritional supplementation for dogs and cats with vitiligo. Talk to your veterinarian about supplementing your pet’s diet.
It’s certainly understandable if it takes you some time to adjust to your dog or cat’s new look. Just remember that the new look is completely cosmetic and doesn’t have to change just how much you love and care for your pet.