It’s every veterinarian’s go-to scenario when contemplating the oldest of laments: “If I had a dollar for every time an owner brought their dog in saying ‘She must be sick – she’s got a dry nose’,” or, ‘He can’t be sick – he’s got a wet nose!’”
Dog with wet nose equals pooch in prime health is an enduring canine myth, one that Dr Leonie Richards, Head of General Practice at the University of Melbourne’s U-Vet Veterinary Hospital, is happy to debunk. “It doesn’t really tell us much at all,” Dr Richards says. “It’s like one of those old wives’ tales that people have just accepted without questioning the validity of it. It actually means nothing.”
Dr Richards has heard various theories behind the origins of the myth, and laughs at the biblical one that’s surely the best of them – that when the two hounds on Noah’s Ark came across a snout-sized hole that threatened to sink the entire animal kingdom, one plugged it with its nose while the other went woofing off to get help. God rewarded all dogs by giving them shiny, wet noses.
The factual explanation is far less fantastical. “Just as we salivate when we smell or think of something nice and tasty, dogs do too and that causes some secretion from the glands in their nose to help them absorb scent,” Dr Richards says.
“Then they lick their nose to taste the fluid that’s been secreted, which dampens the surface of the nose.”
Their inability to sweat in the way humans do is another factor. “They’ve got little sweat glands in their noses and the pads of their feet that help with temperature exchange,” Dr Richards says.
“The other way dogs manage heat loss is through panting, which becomes excessive if they are suffering heat stroke.”
A dog lying in the sun or in front of the fire might feel warm to touch, yet its body temperature can be fairly normal. Its nose might feel dry, as it does after time outside exposed to the wind, but neither is cause for alarm. Changes in texture and colour could be cause for concern, but not necessarily a sign of widespread problems.
“Some older dogs actually get a disease of the tissue of their nose, their noses become cracked and thickened, but that doesn’t actually indicate disease elsewhere in the body,” Dr Richards says. “It doesn’t really indicate whether the dog’s healthy or not.”
If discharge coming from a dog’s nose is discoloured rather than clear, this could be a pointer to infection similar to discoloured mucus in humans. “Just like us if we had a flu,” Dr Richards says. The key is to see beyond the nose at the end of your dog’s face.
“Lethargy, not wanting to engage in their normal activities, vomiting, diarrhoea, pale gums, not wanting to eat – these can be pointers to sickness just as they are with us. Dogs’ noses are normally damp, but if they’re not damp it doesn’t actually mean they’re unwell. That’s the main take-home message. You need to look for other signs of ill health.”
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