Hanging tongue syndrome

Tails of Seattle:  A pets blog 

SeattleTimes – August 3, 2011

Posted by Neena Pellegrini

This week's questions are answered by Dr. Kevin Wilson, a veterinarian at Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital in Snohomish.

Question: Most of the dogs we see competing in the World's Ugliest Dog competitions always seem to have their tongues hanging out -- protruding -- and the dogs don't appear to be able to pull their tongues back in their mouths. Is this likely to be a condition called hanging tongue syndrome?

Answer:  A protruding tongue can be caused by various things, most of which are not really health concerns or problems for the dog.

The majority of these dogs are small-breed dogs that are brachycephalic ("smooshed-face") dogs. These dogs have functional tongues, but, because of genetics, the tongue may be too large for the oral cavity, an abnormal jaw bone doesn't support the tongue or missing teeth allows the tongue to slip out through the gap.

Sometimes there are non-genetic causes to the hanging tongue. The most common is severe dental disease, which leads to loss of the lower canine teeth. With nothing to rest against, the tongue tends to loll out to the side. Trauma to the jaw, tongue or head can lead to nerve dysfunction or scarring of the tongue. These dogs may not be able to use the tongue normally.

Question: What health dangers does it pose for the dog?

Answer: Because most dogs are able to retract the tongue at will, the hanging tongue doesn't cause many problems. They eat and drink normally and are able to pant and protect the tongue from trauma.

Occasionally, a dog that allows his tongue to hang out too much will end up with a thickened and dry tongue. In these cases, using a light coating of olive oil a couple times a day can keep the tissue from cracking and bleeding.

The dogs that don't have normal tongue function are more concerning. The tongue can actually become dead tissue, get frostbite and sustain trauma. Some of these dogs may have difficulty eating and drinking as well.

A veterinary exam to try to determine and correct the underlying cause would be the best course of action. If uncorrected, some dogs may need to be fed special diets or potentially fed via a tube.

Remember, not all dogs with a protruding tongue actually have what is commonly referred to as "hanging tongue syndrome." A dog that is panting, resting or just being silly may have a tongue that is sticking out for a time.

In fact, my regal greyhound has his tongue sticking out of the side of his mouth half the time. An endearing quality, especially when he stops.

Dr. Kevin Wilson

Wilsonis a veterinarian at Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital in Snohomish. He completed his veterinary degree at Oregon State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 2001. His special interests include dentistry and soft-tissue surgery, with a focus on disease prevention and pain management.