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Let me preface this article by making it clear that I am not a veterinarian. As with all my dog care articles, I'm sharing what I've learned over many years of caring for dogs and researching the best practices of having them live long, healthy lives as the boon companions they can be.
The fact is, though, that none of our vets over the years has talked to us about our dogs' gums, which frankly surprises me, since you can use a dog's gums to read some of the early warning signs of very serious health conditions. Dogs can't talk to us and tell us where it hurts. They can't tell us that they feel dehydrated or dizzy, that they feel weak or more tired than normal, or that they're experiencing any of a million little signs of illness that a human doctor can use to try to pinpoint a diagnosis.
It's pretty clear in this picture that there's nothing wrong with Jax, but when
something does go wrong with a dog's health, it can be really hard to figure out.
Or can you?
There are lots of ways we can learn to read subtle changes in our dogs' health, and one of the simplest is to look at your dog's gums.
But before you grab your dog by the mouth, make sure you've built up plenty of trust so you can handle his mouth safely. Jamming your hands in the mouth of a dog who isn't comfortable and ready is a recipe for a bad bite. Spend some time acclimating your dog to the idea that you're going to gently handle his mouth on a regular basis. Use plenty of rewards and go slowly. Whether you need to train your dog to be comfortable with being handled, or whether you're already there with him, work regularly on making your dog comfortable with having you gently hold his muzzle and pull up his lip. The more consistently you check the gums, the more easily you'll see the subtle changes that can signal the onset of a health problem.
Plus, by handling your dog gently and rewarding him for letting you check his mouth, you're training your dog for when the vet needs to take a look, which means that your dog is more likely to have a positive experience at the vet's office and your vet is more likely to get a good look with a minimum of fuss.
Gums should be pink and slick to the touch, and you can use them to do a capillary refill test, which helps you know how well the circulatory system is working. Push down on the gum gently but firmly, and when you remove your finger, see how long it takes for the white spot to turn pink again as the little blood vessels refill. This test gives you a way to roughly measure your dog's blood pressure. In a normal, healthy dog, the refill takes 1-2 seconds. If it takes longer, it means your dog's blood pressure is low, which happens in conditions like heatstroke or shock. Do this test periodically when your dog is healthy to get a sense of the normal refill time. You can do a similar test on yourself, by the way, by pushing firmly down on your own fingernail.
Jax has a little bit of black pigment here and there on his gums, so checking them
while he's healthy lets me know that it's normal and shouldn't be confused with the
graying that might signal a health problem.
Paler than normal can mean dehydration, low blood pressure, or trouble breathing.
Brick red gums can mean heat stroke or the early stages of bloat.
Grayish or bluish gums can mean the dog isn't getting enough oxygen.
White or flat grey gums are an emergency either with blood flow or oxygen, like in the later stages of bloat.
Dry, sticky gums can mean dehydration.
If your dog has black gums, these tips aren't quite as helpful. You can still test dehydration by feel, but the color changes will be much more subtle. I do know someone whose dog has black gums, and she told me that they do turn darker and lighter. If you have a black-gummed dog, you can also gently pull down the corner of the dog's lower eyelid to expose the pink third eyelid, which should show similar color changes for similar conditions.
I really believe that if more owners regularly checked their dogs' gums to get a baseline and took a peek when they suspected something might be wrong, those dogs would get appropriate or even life-saving care faster. If your dog seems a little off, you may not know if it's serious enough to go to the vet, but if he seems off and his gums have turned from pink to gray, you know far earlier that it's time to rush to the vet. So make it part of your weekly—or even daily—grooming and hands-on exam so you're even more in tune with your dog's health.