Whenever people stop my dogs to say hello, they often ask their ages. Everyone always thinks that Pearl is an old man – she kind of has that look, and she’s naturally gray, being a Schnauzer mix of some sort. Zoey is white, so she’s ageless, the lucky girl.
Pepper is the one that brings about the best comments. He’s a silver Schnauzer, and at fourteen years old still has pep in his step. People ask how old he is, and when I tell them 14, they reply, “14 months?” No, 14 years. “14 years!” No one can quite believe it.
I rarely think about graying in dogs because I don’t have dogs that will go gray or white in the muzzle – they are already gray or white. But the other day I was thinking about a guy I went to high school with who was 17 and completely gray. He was cute and popular, but looked much older than his years. So I got to thinking: Do dogs go prematurely gray? And what causes it? I posted a note on my Pet Postcard Project Facebook page, asking people if their dogs had gone prematurely gray. Here are some of the replies:
“Ranger’s only seven, but he’s been gray for three years now.”
“My Golden Retriever had a gray/white muzzle by the age of two! Very premature.”
“My Pit started going gray when she was just under two, she’s four and a half now. The vet said that it’s common in dogs that are overweight. Yes, she’s pudgy, but I wouldn’t have said overweight . . . but then again, I’m her mom.”
“My Bella is three, and is really gray in the face. She is a Cavalier King Charles/Pug mix who was originally all black. The gray started about one year ago. She is still as precious as before, but I do get asked about her being so gray.”
My brown haired Chihuahua is 4, and when I rescued him, he was already gray/white in the muzzle. He was abused before he came to me so I attributed it to him having a rough life that prematurely aged him.”
“Our Boykin Spaniel started going gray at about three years old. Someone told us it was because of a stainless steel bowl. He also had a severe heart murmur.”
“My Pomeranian, Penny, started graying around her muzzle at age three. My vet said it was due to stress because she was rescued from a puppy mill. She was also a tad on the hefty side. Some people notice, most don’t. She could be bald and I would still love her.”
Of course, I immediately called my veterinarian friend in Los Angeles, Patrick Mahaney, VMD, and quizzed him on the topic.
“A gray muzzle could mean that your dog is a senior, or it could be a normal pigmentary change that occurs due to a dog’s genetics, or environmental exposure to the elements, such as the sun, cold, or heat – anything could potentially cause a pigmentary change, but typically it’s with age,” says Mahaney.
I asked him if it was a problem. I thought about the one brown stray dog that I had several years ago that I took off the streets as a senior – she already had a gray muzzle and she was a million years old, so I didn’t think anything of it.
“Certainly premature gray could indicate a problem, but the issue would really be with hair loss,” Patrick said. “But, if you’re noticing a premature graying face on your dog, it would be a good idea to have your vet examine the dog and have blood testing done for hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease, and look at base line functions of the kidneys and liver. It could be nutritional. But graying of hair shouldn’t set off any alarm that your pet has a life threatening illness.”
OK, now I was really thinking. My dogs won’t go gray because they are already gray, so I have less of a chance of knowing if something was wrong with them than people who have black or brown dogs. This was pinging all kinds of neurotic buttons and setting off all of the alarm that he just said not to set off. How would I know if my dogs were getting ill? Help!
“A gray dog’s gray should develop more gray and their color could lighten up,” says Mahaney. “Graying of a muzzle can be indicative of an older dog, but it’s more important to pay attention to other senior issues, arthritis, periodontal disease, and weight-related issues.
“For the most part, gray is just an aesthetic thing,” he said. “I’ve never had a client want to get their dog’s muzzle colored when they go to the dog groomer – and my clientele is in Beverly Hills. The biggest take-home message is that graying means that your dog is a little older and you should pay attention to senior issues. Plus, the gray gives them a certain distinguished look.”
OK, I’m not going to worry about it. The next time someone mistakes my sprightly Princess Pearl for an old male dog, I’ll remember that they think she’s distinguished and hold my tongue. At least she doesn’t know what they’re saying. She’s just happy for the attention.