Albino Dogs: Understanding a Rare Condition
If you're looking to adopt a canine companion and your interest is piqued by albino dogs, with their beautiful pale coats and hypnotic pink eyes, you're in good company, as many devoted pet parents welcome these dogs into their families.
Before making the adoption official, though, read on to familiarize yourself with the complex condition of an albino dog.
What Is Albinism?
Albinism in dogs — or any species — isn't a specific breed, but is a rare, genetic mutation known as tyrosinase (full albino) or tyrosinase-positive (partial albino).
Albinism causes a complete lack of pigmentation, including of the skin, hair, and eyes as well as the blood vessels, resulting in a pinkish tinge. In fact, one of the tell-tale differences between a true albino dog and a dog with white fur is that the albino has pink eyes. A white-coated dog carries the genetic make-up for white pigmentation, or may be a partial albino, whereas a true albino dog has no pigmentation.
As explained by the National Wildlife Federation, "Not all paler-than-usual animals are albinos, however. Some lack pigment everywhere except their eyes – a phenomenon called 'leucistic' by biologists." Therefore, an all-white dog with blue eyes, such as a Siberian Husky, is not considered an albino.
In order for the condition to manifest itself in offspring, both parents must carry the albinism gene. It's very possible, then, that two black dogs carrying the recessive gene can mate and produce an albino pup.
However, albinism does tend to show up more frequently in certain breeds of dogs, including Collies and Great Danes, and sometimes partial albinism shows itself as "spotting." For example, you may see white spots on the chest or head of a dog, indicating the presence of the (usually) recessive gene, but this dog is not considered to be a true albino.
Because albino dogs lack melanin, which in addition to providing pigment also absorbs the sun's radiation, they are photosensitive (extremely sensitive to ultraviolet rays) and therefore must have protection from direct sunlight. "If a dog has to be outside during peak sun hours," advises PetMD, "pet parents can utilize accessories like bodysuits, shirts and hats with ultraviolet protection." If you adopt an albino dog, you also will need to purchase a pair of doggy sunglasses and manage his outdoor activity very carefully so that his eyesight is not damaged.
Another health concern is sun damage to the skin. Just like humans with pale skin, great care must be taken to prevent too much sun exposure for your pup, which can result in sunburn or skin cancers, including melanoma. In addition to outfitting him with doggy goggles, prepare him for the outdoors by loading him up with sunscreen lotion. If you do opt for sunscreen, speak with your veterinarian first to learn what to purchase and how to apply. There are sunscreens made specifically for dogs, and one formulated for babies may be another option. Be aware that certain ingredients are toxic to dogs: avoid any sunscreen containing PABA (para-aminobenzoic).
A persistent medical concern about albinism is that the condition may cause deafness in dogs and other animals. However, according to George M. Strain, PhD, a professor at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine who specializes in deafness in dogs and cats, there is no connection. "Albinism, in which melanocytes [cells responsible for melanin production] are present but one of the enzymes responsible for melanin production (tyrosinase) is absent or diminished, does not have an association with deafness." Dr. Strain notes the same result for albino cats, underscoring the fact that deafness is not a side effect of albinism.
A rare and intriguing genetic condition, albinism shouldn't deter you from adopting the pup of your dreams. With the proper care and understanding of your furry friend's health care requirements, you'll live a full and happy life together.
Christine O'Brien is a writer, mom, and long-time cat parent whose two Russian Blues rule the house. Her work also appears in Care.com, What to Expect, and Fit Pregnancy, where she writes about pets, pregnancy, and family life. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien.