Time changes everything, even for our dogs. From living arrangements and relationships to emotional stress and fatigue: how much of these affect how our dogs gray and why does the face of a healthy, young and vibrant dog turn white within couple of years? The answer may not be as simple as one might expect – especially if your fur baby was adopted, leaving their past in a shroud of mystery.
The secrets of what causes premature graying have long since been a mystery in both humans and dogs, alike. Some say its carries a look of distinguished fortitude from life’s challenges and journeys. Others fear it echos impending doom. But the truth of the matter is you cannot simply chalk it up to getting old. Age is indeed a factor – and so is genetics, stress, health and overall disposition.
Where Does Gray Hair Come From?
There are cells found within the body called Melanocytes which produce a pigment known as Melanin. Melanocytes cells are sensitive to several types of damage from things like sun exposure and Lupus – especially in dominant areas of the body with hair as well as seen in skin and eyes. As with the rest of the body, these Melanocyte cells wear out over time and fail to signal new hair growth. When this happens, the pigment becomes gray.
As your dog ages, their melanin levels gradually lower and the gray hairs become more abundant and widespread on your dog. As a rule of thumb, dogs begin to sprout their first gray hairs near the age of 5 years old. However, gray hairs have been known to start poking through a dog’s lustrous coat as early as one year old.
It’s important to remember large breed dogs typically show their age faster than your “pocket pooch.” Generally speaking, dogs will reach their golden senior years around 7 years old. Most frequently, their muzzles are the first to turn white. But it can happen virtually anywhere on your dog’s body: between their toes, ears or small flecks throughout their coat. I’ve even seen it begin on the eye brows!
Keep in mind that dogs age differently than humans. I’m sure you have heard the old traditional method of calculation where every one dog year is equal to seven human years (commonly referred to as 7:1 ratio). But surprisingly enough, according to the AVMA it’s really not as clear cut as you would think. For the first year of life in a medium sized dog, they are actually 15 human years. Talk about an instant teenager! By the time that dog hits 2 years old, they have aged another 9 human years. For every year after, the dog will age five human years. Again, larger breeds will age faster by the time hit six years old.
Predisposition to gray hair has been genetically proven in humans, but what about dogs? While there is not much research available to prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt, the preliminary groundwork has certainly paved the way to likelihood. There is, in fact, a genetic factor that tends to be breed-specific. Bearded Collies and Poodles are just an example of two breeds which are more prone to premature graying. These breeds tend to carry the dominant “Graying Gene” known as Chromone 25, which will turn their lustrous coat to silver. It’s interesting to note that the long haired and non-shedding breeds tend to display a more active role in premature graying. For a more conclusive list of dog breeds that naturally carry the dominant graying gene, you can have a look HERE.
Anxiety and Impulsivity
It’s no secret that stress causes humans to prematurely age and gray. Just ask anyone that leads a high-stress lifestyle. But what about our dogs? As it turns out, there was a recent study performed by Applied Animal Behaviour Science, published in the Official Journal of International Society for Applied Ethology, revealing premature graying in dogs ages 1-4 is greatly influenced by anxiety and impulsivity. Behavioral signs of anxiety and impulsivity in dogs would include behaviors like:
Jumping on people
Inability to calm down
Difficulty remaining focused
Hyperactivity even after exercise
Cringes, cowls and/or hides around people
Fear of loud noises, unfamiliar people or other animals
Unfortunately, we see a lot of anxiety and impulsivity in abused, neglected and shelter dogs. Out of all the reasons premature graying can occur, anxiety and impulsivity seems to be the one we can have some control and influence over. At the conclusion of the study, it became clear that the size of the dog and spaying or neutering operations did not influence the graying. However, females did show more gray than the males.
While premature greying can be linked to genetics, stress and anxiety, health can also be an important factor. As your pooch ages, he or she will experience normal changes in their health, like arthritis or stiff joints, increased naps, decreased appetite, thinning of hair and cloudy eyes. These signs are to be expected and are no need for alarm. Premature graying, however, can also be a tell-tale sign of an underlying health issue you should be aware of. So, you should be very astute as to your dog’s normal dietary and activity habits, disposition and alertness. If anything is amiss or “not quite right,” notify your veterinarian ASAP.
A friend of mine once adopted an American Staffordshire Terrier named Chance. He was estimated to be two years old when they got him with not a single gray hair on his body and neutered prior to adoption. Chance was a fireball of energy and love. His tail never stopped wagging and his eyes beamed with happiness and contentment. Within a couple of years he started graying significantly, becoming extremely lazy and wanted to sleep 24/7 – when he wasn’t eating everything nailed down.
Becoming alarmed by this change – which was totally out of Chance’s character – my friend took her little ray of canine sunshine to the vet. As it turns out, Chance tested positive for Hypothyroidism which causes premature graying, along with many other worrisome health issues.
Take heed that these signs of premature aging with graying can also be found in the following conditions:
Liver function problems
Kidney function problems
If you notice early graying combined with other subtle – or not so subtle – changes in your dog’s overall health and disposition, consult your veterinarian right away for examination.
Act Your Age
The bottom line here is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Just because your dog is carrying on like a crazy fool chasing their tail one minute and the next they look like a silver haired old man, doesn’t necessarily mean he’s an old fart.
❝Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter❞ – Mark Twain
Likewise, if your dog is covered in gray hair but still acts like an incorrigible teenager… then let the good times roll! Don’t let that white face fool you. Just because your dog’s face turns white doesn’t mean they’re washed up with the best years behind them. Nothing could be further from the truth! If the vet has given them a clean bill of health; then throw that frisbee or ball, go for long walks in the park and hike those wilderness trails. Sometimes, looking a little deeper might warn you of previously unforeseen health warnings – or reveal something really fascinating. The key is take notice if something is amiss.