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Hyperpigmentation: When Your Dog’s Skin Turns Black

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

Dog with Hyperpigmentation

Have you ever wondered why our sanctuary resident, Mr. Brutus, has patches of black skin and is missing hair? What you're witnessing is an ailment known as hyperpigmentation or black skin disease. This condition can cause your dog's skin to darken significantly while also leading to hair loss that may never grow back. If you've noticed unusual darkening of your dog's skin or patches of hair loss, fear not – in this #lifewitholddogs blog post, we will unravel the mysteries surrounding hyperpigmentation in older German Shepherds and dogs in general and arm you with the knowledge to address this unpleasant issue head-on.

Hyperpigmentation is a genuine concern that can affect dogs of all breeds and ages, including our beloved older German Shepherds. We often overlook the possibility of their skin turning black and their fur falling out (Alopecia) when thinking about their health issues.

What Is Hyperpigmentation in Dogs?

In simple terms, hyperpigmentation is when the skin gets darker, and you can see more color. This is especially noticeable in dogs that have light skin and fur.

The primary cause of skin darkening in dogs is often attributed to other underlying skin conditions or metabolic issues, such as allergies, infections, or endocrine disorders.

Hyperpigmentation is not a sudden occurrence; rather, it requires a continuous presence of trauma or exposure for it to manifest on a dog's skin.

Allergies and Hyperpigmentation in Dogs

Allergies can trigger an inflammatory response in the dog's body, leading to itchiness and discomfort. When the skin becomes irritated, dogs may scratch or chew at themselves, resulting in hair loss and open sores. In some cases, this incessant itching can lead to hyperpigmentation, as the body produces more pigment in response to repeated inflammation.

Itchy dogs should not be left untreated as it can cause long-term issues for their overall health. Regular veterinary check-ups are essential for early detection of allergies and prompt treatment. Identifying the root cause of the allergy is crucial to creating an effective management plan. Food allergies, environmental triggers like pollen or dust mites, or even flea bites could be potential culprits behind your dog's discomfort.

There are various ways to provide relief for itchy dogs with hyperpigmentation caused by allergies. Dietary changes may help if food allergies are suspected; eliminating certain ingredients known to trigger allergic reactions might improve their symptoms. Additionally, topical treatments such as medicated shampoos or soothing creams can relieve itchiness and reduce inflammation in the affected areas.

Now, you may think that since you haven't seen your dog scratching their skin lately, itching couldn't be the reason for hyperpigmentation. But it's important to note that the trauma, like persistent licking or scratching or infected skin, could have happened some time ago, and you're just now noticing the change in color.

Regardless of when you notice the change in the color of your dog’s skin, you should know that the skin may never return to its former light color. That being said, treating chronic skin conditions, the causes of itching, and self-trauma is important for your dog’s health and comfort.

dog with hyperpigmentation

Skin Infections and Hyperpigmentation in Dogs

Skin infections can occur on their own or can be secondary to allergies. No matter the cause, if the skin is infected, it can lead to hyperpigmentation.

Skin infections, like allergies, can be chronic. Therefore, it’s best for you and your veterinarian to get to the bottom of this and treat it accordingly. Let’s take a look at skin infections:

  • Bacterial and yeast infections are the most common causes of skin infections in dogs.

  • Mange, whether it be demodex or sarcoptic mange, has the ability to darken the skin. Demodex lesions typically stay in one area, while sarcoptes tend to spread throughout the body. With proper treatment, the discoloration can fade away, although severe cases may retain it.

  • Ringworm (dermatophytosis) in dogs can lead to either temporary or permanent hyperpigmentation.

Your veterinarian understands the concerns and uncertainties you may have, and they, too, may be contemplating the same questions as they work toward a diagnosis.

Once these questions are answered through history taking and diagnostics like skin scrapings, food sensitivity trials, and maybe even a biopsy, proper treatment can begin.

Exploring the Link between Endocrine Disorders and Hyperpigmentation

A link has been established between endocrine disorders and hyperpigmentation. Endocrine disorders, such as hypothyroidism and Cushing's disease, affect the hormonal balance in a dog's body, which can lead to various symptoms, including skin changes like hyperpigmentation.

In cases of hypothyroidism, where the thyroid gland does not produce enough hormones, the skin becomes dry and flaky. The lack of proper hormone regulation also affects the pigmentation process in cells called melanocytes. Consequently, these cells produce excessive pigment, leading to hyperpigmented areas on the dog's body. Similarly, dogs with Cushing's disease experience hormonal imbalances due to excess production of cortisol by their adrenal glands. This overproduction can disrupt normal melanin production and cause patches of darkened skin.

Understanding this link between endocrine disorders and hyperpigmentation is crucial for accurate diagnosis and effective treatment strategies for affected dogs. By addressing the underlying hormonal imbalance, it may be possible to alleviate or even reverse the pigmentation changes seen in these conditions.

When sanctuary resident Savvy arrived, she didn’t have any hair on her belly, and her skin was black. We quickly discovered that she had an underactive thyroid, and now, two years into treatment, she has pink skin and hair on her belly.

dog with hypothyroidism before and after medication

It should be mentioned that along with hyperpigmentation, dogs who have endocrine disorders can have large areas of fur missing, patchy fur loss, secondary skin infections, thinning hair, thin or thickened skin, as well as changes in energy, thirst, and appetite.

Blood tests are required to diagnose endocrine disorders.

Dog’s Skin Turning Black and Losing Hair

When a dog’s skin has turned black, thickening of the skin (lichenification) and/or hair loss (alopecia) can go along with hyperpigmentation, making the skin and fur look unhealthy.

Long, chronic skin allergies causing the dog to scratch and bite will cause the skin to become thickened (lichenified).

This can be seen most commonly in the groin area, the armpits, and sometimes around the eyes and private parts, depending on where the dog is most itchy.

Additional Causes of Hyperpigmentation in Dogs

  • Genetics- Genetics is a significant factor in hyperpigmentation in dogs. Certain breeds are more predisposed to this condition, and specific gene mutations have been identified. Understanding these genetic variations can help reduce the prevalence of hyperpigmentation through targeted breeding strategies.

  • Shaving a dog's fur too closely can result in a condition called post-clipper alopecia, where the fur does not grow back after grooming. In these cases, the affected area of the skin may darken and become black. However, with time and patience, the darkening usually fades, and hair growth resumes after several months.

  • Chronic licking can alter the skin and fur color in dogs with light-colored coats, like the brown-stained feet of a white Poodle. This condition is usually caused by allergies and can be managed but not always cured.

  • As dogs grow older, it is not uncommon for them to experience hyperpigmentation. This can manifest as a slight darkening of the skin due to prolonged sun exposure and exposure to various elements, especially in dogs with light or white coats.

  • Hormonal changes, such as the administration of drugs like steroids or diethylstilbestrol (DES) for urinary incontinence, can result in hyperpigmentation.

  • Numerous skin disorders, such as cancers and growths, can result in hyperpigmentation. These dogs display significant lesions and are not merely cases of darkened skin.

Treatment for Dogs with Hyperpigmentation

The treatment of hyperpigmentation in dogs typically involves a multifaceted approach that includes both topical and systemic interventions. Topical treatments aim to regulate melanin production and reduce pigmentation by employing agents such as hydroquinone, corticosteroids, or retinoids. These compounds function through various mechanisms, including inhibition of melanocyte activity and suppression of inflammation.

Systemic interventions may also be employed to address underlying factors contributing to hyperpigmentation. Such interventions might involve dietary modifications aimed at optimizing nutrient intake and minimizing potential allergens that could trigger pigmentation abnormalities. Additionally, administration of medications like melatonin or thyroxine may be considered depending on the specific etiology identified during diagnostic evaluation.

Hyperpigmentation is an abnormal increase in melanin production within the epidermal layer of the dog's skin. As such, this practice involves subjecting these hyperpigmented dogs to a carefully orchestrated regimen of bathing techniques and specialized cleansing agents to mitigate or manage their condition effectively.

The primary objective behind bathing dogs with hyperpigmentation lies in ameliorating their unique dermatological disposition. By employing meticulous bathing methods, which may encompass various strategies like gentle scrubbing, careful temperature regulation, and utilization of hypoallergenic or medicated cleansers.

Brutus gets a bath once a week with medicated shampoo and thoroughly dried afterward.

It is noteworthy that effective management of hyperpigmentation in dogs necessitates a thorough understanding of the underlying causes and tailored treatment regimens accordingly. Regular monitoring and follow-up evaluations are essential to assess treatment efficacy and adjust therapeutic strategies as required.

In conclusion, hyperpigmentation in dogs is a common condition that can have various causes and manifestations. It occurs when the dog's skin turns black due to an overproduction of melanin.

While it may not always be a cause for concern, it is important to monitor any changes in your dog's skin pigmentation and seek veterinary advice if necessary. Your veterinarian will be able to determine the underlying cause of the hyperpigmentation through a thorough examination and appropriate diagnostic tests.

With proper diagnosis and treatment, many cases of hyperpigmentation can be effectively managed or resolved. So, if you notice any unusual changes in your dog's skin coloration, don't hesitate to reach out to your veterinarian for guidance and support.


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