A Dry Nose in Cats and Dogs: What Does it Mean?

15 NOVEMBER 2020

This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Carla Paszkowski BVSc (Hons)

Have you ever contemplated taking your cat or dog to the vet because their nose suddenly felt dry? You certainly aren't alone. A common perception exists among pet owners that healthy cats and dogs should have a warm, wet nose. It follows, therefore, that a dry nose must mean your pet is sick.

In my experience, this is one of the most enduring doggy myths out there. And rest assured, that this is certainly just a myth. Your cat or dog may fluctuate between having a dry or a wet nose multiple times throughout the day; and this is completely normal.

Skip to a section:
Where did this myth come from?
Why do cats and dogs have wet noses?
Nasal Symptoms to be concerned about
A word about pigment and de-pigmentation

Where did this myth come from?

The "dog nose" myth has been around for centuries. So how did it start? Like many myths, the true source of this myth isn't known for sure. A number of origin theories exist - one of the most entertaining has to be a biblical tale that describes two hounds on Noah's Ark. In the story, one of the hounds found a snout-sized hole in the Ark that threatened to sink the entire animal kingdom. So while one hound plugged the hole with its nose, the other went off barking to get help - and God rewarded all dogs by giving them wet noses.

However, some experts think that the myth is more likely to have started at a time when canine distemper (a deadly virus that dogs are vaccinated against nowadays) was commonplace. One symptom of severe distemper is hyperkeratosis (thickening) of the skin on the footpads and nose. When canine distemper was widespread, it was therefore a good sign if your pet had a cool, wet nose because it meant that your dog didn't have distemper.

Why Do Dogs and Cats Have Wet Noses?

To understand this myth, it's important to understand the true function of your pet's nose. Dogs and cats have wet noses for a number of reasons, which relate to a range of different functions:

1. To trap scent particles

Within their noses lie some mucous glands. Just like us, dogs and cats salivate when they smell something delicious. This actually causes some secretion from the glands inside their nose. This secretion actually helps them absorb the scent, as the mucous captures and dissolves molecules in the air and brings them into contact with specialised cells and the highly developed canine vomeronasal organ. Dogs then lick their noses to taste the fluid that's been secreted, which dampens the surface of the nose.

2. To regulate body temperature

The temperature and dryness of a cat or dog's nose will be dependant on the environment. Dogs who have been outside in the heat or wind are more likely to have a dry nose. Nose pads, along with the footpads, are the only places that dogs sweat from, so your dog is more likely to have a wet nose when they're hot.

So in general, your pet is most likely to have a wet nose before or during meal times, when they're out absorbing scents, and to help cool them down.

Symptoms of Concern

Rather than worrying about how wet or dry your pet's nose is, there are a number of other nasal signs that may indicate your pet is unwell.

If your dog is showing any of these signs it's always a good idea to have them checked out by your vet. If they are otherwise well, but their nose feels dry or warm, this is most likely normal for your dog.

A word about pigment...

Loss of pigment on the skin of the nose can be a sign of certain diseases, such as autoimmune conditions. However, the colour of a dog's nose may vary depending on the breed - and practically the whole rainbow is represented on the spectrum of 'normal'. A dog's nose may be black, brown, liver, pink, or very pale.

Is it normal if a dog's nose changes colour? Sometimes a dog's nose can lighten or darken as they age. Puppies are often born with pink noses, which later darken. But what if the nose loses its pigment, turning lighter or white? De-pigmentation of the nose is sometimes harmless, but sometimes it may be cause for concern.

Possible causes of depigmentation on your pet's nose include:

1. Old age - depigmentation can be a normal part of the ageing process.
2. Injury - trauma such as a scrape or abrasion can cause scarring and the nose may appear light in colour.
3. Bacterial infection - infections cause a host of symptoms, including inflammation, pain, discharge, and sneezing, but depigmentation can also occur as part of the presentation.
4. Idiopathic depigmentation - also known as "Dudley Nose" is when a dog's nose turns pink or even white for an unknown reason. In some dogs it may regain pigment, and can even change seasonally. Breeds most prone to "Dudley Nose" include the Doberman Pinscher, Golden Retriever, Irish Setter, Pointer, Poodle, Samoyed and the White German Shepherd.
5. Contact allergies (contact dermatitis) - If your dog is allergic to something that the nose touches, it may cause a local reaction involving depigmentation and inflammation. The lips are usually also affected too. This is a common occurrence when dogs are allergic to plastic food bowls, and a swap to a porcelain or steel bowl can help.
6. Pemphigus - an immune-mediated skin disorder. This condition can cause sores, inflammation and pain and around your dog's nose, but is completely treatable with medication from your vet.
7. Discoid Lupus - another immune-mediated disorder that can also cause sores on and around the dog's nose. This condition can worsen with sun exposure.
8. Vitiligo - another immune-mediated disorder in which healthy, pigment-carrying cells are blocked by attacking antibodies. This condition can affect pigment all over the body - turning the coat white in scattered patches. The disorder can get worse over time turning a once dark dog white, but generally doesn't affect the overall health of your dog. Breeds most prone to Vitiligo are the Dachshund, Doberman Pinscher, German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever and the Rottweiler.
8. Skin cancer - generally uncommon in cats and dogs, but can occur in light-skinned animals with pink noses. Dogs with pale noses are prone to sunburn and precautions should be taken. A doggy sunscreen can come in handy during periods of sun exposure.

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Further Reading

Want to read more? Check out our other articles:

Pancreatitis in Dogs

Premium pet food: is it worth it?

Dental care for dogs

What is the best grain-free dog food?

What is the best flea and tick treatment?

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