Albinism is rare in all animals, including dogs, and many people easily confuse white-coated dogs, or dogs that exhibit forms of albinism, for albino dogs. True albinism is a genetic condition in which pigmentation of eyes, coat, and skin is completely absent.
An important distinction to draw between dogs with white coats and albino dogs is that white-coated dogs produce the color white, while albinos only appear white due to lack of pigmentation.
All-white dogs have genetic markers by virtue of which the white pigment masks, or suppresses, all other colors. Albinism, on the other hand, is caused by the absence of both melanin and the enzymes that produce it. That said, some dogs exhibit characteristics of albinism without being true albinos. Let’s explore the distinctions, as plainly and legibly as possible, and see what makes an albino dog an albino.
Without genetic testing, albino dogs can only be determined most easily by a close inspection of his nose and eyes. Like albino cats, the eyes and the tissue surrounding the eye sockets of albino dogs appear to exhibit a pinkish hue. The pink in both eyes and skin is not true pink, though. What seems to be pink is actually the result of diffused blood flow in these areas.
Dog and cat eyes are able to process a great deal more available light than human eyes. This is not only why they have far superior night vision, but also why their eyes appear red in flash photography. What we perceive as pink or red in any standard dog’s eyes is simply excess light reflected back out through the blood vessels in their eyes.
The pink of an albino dog’s eyes, nose, and the skin, especially surrounding the eyes and mouth, will appear to be very pale, even bleached out. An albino dog’s eyes themselves may retain some minor pigmentation, but this coloration, too, is pale or translucent in nature. The lack of melanin and pigmentation in a dog’s skin puts these dogs at higher risk, not only for sunburn, but also for developing skin cancers.
Some dogs may appear to be true albinos, but retain some pigmentation, which will be most noticeable on the nose or stomach. We can call this partial albinism, but there is actually a range of melanins, and as such, a wide variety of albinisms are possible and observable in dogs.
That said, in cases of partial albinism, dogs produce only a small amount of melanin, sufficient to produce limited coloration. With the exception of small areas of pigmentation, whether in eyes, skin, or coat, what remains will retain that extremely pale, color-drained appearance.
Instances of limited coloration in non-albino dogs produces two coat patterns, each producing limited color swatches on a dog’s coat and skin. These patterns are known in breed standards and kennel clubs as “piebald” and “merle.” Piebald dogs have mostly white-colored coats that display large spots or patches of dark coloration. Merle-coated dogs exhibit splotches or patches of color, not only on the coat, but on the skin as well.
Dogs with merle coats are also prone to having heterochromatic, or different-colored, eyes. As in white cats, the genes responsible for coat color, eye, and ear health are not causally linked, so white and albino dogs are not necessarily more likely to be born blind or deaf. However, a rare genetic combination, known as “double merle,” does carry inherent health risks. Double merle dogs, like Keller in the photo above, may be mistaken for albino dogs. Unlike true albino dogs, who, aside from light sensitivity, are generally healthy, double-merle-coated dogs are at higher risk for both deafness and blindness.
Melanin serves a number of uses in the body aside from providing pigmentation. In the eyes, the presence of melanin is one thing that allows dogs to process and filter light. For a true albino dog, without melanin or without much, direct sunlight causes pain in their eyes which makes them squint. True albino dogs should get minimal and carefully managed exposure to direct sunlight.
Light filtration is not the only purpose for melanin. With regard to the skin and body, it provides natural protection from the sun, as well as contributing to the body’s ability to fight off infection. Further, albino dogs are far more prone to sunburn and to developing skin cancers due to their extreme photosensitivity.
Though it is rare, albinism is not restricted to any particular breed of dog. Have you ever owned or encountered any albino dogs? What breed or mix was the dog? If you have lived with and cared for an albino dog, what differences and adjustments did you make, in terms of regular exercise routines or living conditions, to make sure his needs were met? We’d love for you to share your experiences with albino dogs in the comments!
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