You’ve probably heard the term “albino” before in reference to humans who lack pigment in their eyes, skin, and hair. But did you know that dogs can have this genetic condition too? While not all white dogs are albino, there are instances of completely albino dogs, and more commonly, dogs who have some degree of the genetic condition. Read on to learn about the causes of albinism and what you can do to care for an albino dog.
What Causes Albinism?
A completely pure white animal with pink eyes and pale pink skin is considered albino, and is technically referred to as tyrosinase-negative. Tyrosinase is an enzyme involved in melanin production, and melanin is the natural substance that gives color (or pigment) to the eyes, skin, and hair. Albinism is a lack or defect of this enzyme and is caused by a recessive gene that is inherited from both parents. Many true albino dogs will suffer from deafness because the unpigmented skin in the ear canal causes the nerve endings to degenerate.
Other Forms of Albinism
Other forms of albinism -- referred to as tyrosinase-positive -- result in a dog that exhibits whitening but does have pigment. White German Shepherds, West Highland White Terriers, and White Doberman Pinschers are some of the breeds considered to be tyrosinase-positive. While these dogs may appear to be all white, they are actually either a pale cream or very light gray color.
Other dogs may inherit genes that create unique coat patterns caused by lack of pigmentation. Merle is one of these genes and patterns, and often shows up in Australian Shepherds, Shetland Sheepdogs, Corgis, Dachshunds, Collies, Great Danes, and others. What look like spots are actually patches of the original coat color showing up within the lightened base coat. This is caused by either one or two inherited copies of the Merle gene (dogs with two copies may show more Merling and may also have more white in their coat).
The Harlequin gene often shows up in Great Danes who carry the Merle gene. This results in a coat that is significantly lightened from its original color with splotches of the original color still showing through. These dogs sometimes appear to be white with black spots.
Still more patterns caused by lack of pigmentation include Irish Spotting and Piebald Spotting. Irish Spotting is often seen in Collies and refers to the white area on the chest, legs, and face. This pattern is also seen in the Boston Terrier and other dogs. Piebald Spotting is common to Cocker Spaniels, Bulldogs, Beagles, and other hounds. It is characterized by random white spotting.
How Common Is Albinism?
True albino dogs with no pigment at all are extremely rare. Dogs with some degree of albinism are much more common, especially for the breeds listed above.
Caring For an Albino Dog
True albino dogs are those who are not able to produce any melanin, which is a compound that gives color to the skin, eyes, and hair. Melanin also protects the skin from sun radiation, and therefore albino dogs are highly susceptible to sunburn and cancer of the skin and eyes. You can protect your albino dog by keeping them out of the sun, applying sunscreen, and dressing them in protective gear, including dog sunglasses/goggles.
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