Your dog’s tongue is a very obvious part of her anatomy, especially if she pants a lot on hot days or after exercise. And, you’ve certainly experienced it firsthand when she gives you a big, wet, sloppy kiss! Just like any health issue, you should be aware of tongue problems in dogs. And yes, noticing the color or any changes in the tongue is very important! But first, let’s discover exactly what the tongue is and its function.
What is the tongue?
The tongue is a muscular organ with many blood vessels, small arteries and veins. Its has a very well-developed network of glands, papillae (needed for taste) and lymphatic tissues. It houses about 1,700 taste buds
The tongue’s upper surface is known as the dorsum and the groove that runs through its center is called the median sulcus.
The basihyoid bone attaches it to the back of the mouth.
What does it do?
It’s responsible for taste. As a matter of fact, the tongue houses approximately 1,700 taste buds (humans have about 10,000) and each one has taste receptor cells that transmit messages to your dog’s brain. Because of these taste receptors, she distinguishes between sweet, sour, bitter and salty.
The tongue helps your dog cool down. Since dogs aren’t able to sweat like humans, the tongue acts like their own built-in radiator. When she pants, the air passes back and forth over her tongue and it cools her body. Also, as saliva evaporates from her mouth it enhances the cooling.
It allows her to drink. Since your dog can’t just walk into the kitchen and grab a glass of water (be sure to tell us if you know a dog who can), she can use her tongue just like a ladle to lap up her water by curling it backwards.
Your dog’s tongue also acts as a cleaning device. It’s kept wet with saliva and is thought to contain beneficial compounds that will destroy bacteria. It also stimulates the circulation of her newborn pups and helps them stay clean. A mother will also use her tongue to stimulate her babies to poop.
It even helps with smells. A dog will gather large scent molecules and with the help of the tongue will send them toward their incisive papilla in a behavior known as tonguing. The scent molecules eventually reach the vomeronasal organ and then the dog’s brain.
Diagnosing the tongue
A problem with your dog’s tongue can be a primary condition or secondary to some other problem in the mouth. Signs of a problem can include a reluctance to eat, abnormal chewing motion, excessive drooling, bloody discharge and bad smell.
The appearance of the tongue can illustrate various health conditions:
- Pink – this is the normal color of tongue for most dogs (some dogs like Shar Peis have a blue-black tongue).
- Yellow/Orange – this can indicate problems with gastritis, the gallbladder or liver.
- Red – may indicate a bacterial infection, fever, gallbladder problems, kidney problems, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, cancer, toxin buildup, dehydration or vitamin deficiency.
- White/Pale – can point to leukemia, anemia, loss of blood, edema, compromised immune function or malnutrition.
- Purple/Blue – can mean heart disease, circulation problems, respiratory problems, liver disease, toxicity, organ distress, pain, hepatitis, liver cancer and lupus.
- Black – If your dog isn’t a Chow Chow or Shar Pei, this is an indication of niacin deficiency or an inflammation or ulceration of the mouth.
When examining your dog’s tongue, look for ulcers, bruises, bumps, growths or bleeding. Also, check for bumps under the tongue and on the roof of the mouth. Also, note if it has a thick or pasty coating as this is frequently a sign that there’s a digestive system imbalance.
Inflammation of the tongue is called glossitis. It can occur alone or with stomatitis (inflammation of the soft tissues of the mouth), gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) or Cheilitis (inflammation of the lips).
There are a number of causes for these inflammations that include foreign body ingestion, exposure to toxic chemicals or plants, immune disease, nutritional disorders, metabolic disease, bacterial and viral infections.
The tongue is also a potential area for tumor growth and most of these are malignant.
Another growth on a dog’s tongue is oral papillomatosis and the papilloma virus causes this. These are tiny warts that resemble cauliflower heads and they appear all over the oral cavity. Fortunately, this condition tends to resolve by itself after several weeks.
There is another condition called a ranula that can develop. This is actually a cyst that grows on the underside of the tongue where the sublingual salivary glands stem from. The cyst can swell so much that the tongue is pushed toward the roof of the mouth or to the side of the mouth. Your dog may have trouble eating and drool excessively. It can be painful.
If you see dark, raised areas anywhere in the mouth, this can indicate melanoma and you should visit your veterinarian right away. However, about half of all cancers affecting a dog’s tongue are squamous cell carcinoma. The sooner your veterinarian treats this, the better chance your dog has for recovery.
Another condition is called cyanosis where the tongue and gums turn bluish or purple due to poorly oxygenated blood. This can be very serious because it could be a sign of heart and respiratory disease.
I bet you didn’t know how complex and important your dog’s tongue is! As you can see, it’s an indicator of her overall health so you need to be vigilant for any tongue problems in dogs.
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