Feline Fashion Statement. The Meaning Behind a Cat’s Black Lips


It’s common for cats to develop black pigmentation around their mouths as they age. This black marking is usually harmless, though in some cases it can indicate an underlying health condition. This article provides an overview of the various causes of black pigmentation around a cat’s mouth. It covers normal pigmentation, dirt and debris accumulation, melanin activation, fungal infections, bruising and trauma, oral melanoma, and other diseases. Information is also provided on when you should take your cat to the veterinarian for evaluation of mouth blackening.

Normal Pigmentation

It is actually very common for cats to have black pigmentation around their mouths. The lips, gums, and inner mouth are often naturally darker in color due to melanin pigmentation in the skin tissue (Source). This is especially noticeable in orange, silver, and lightly colored cats. The medical term for this benign black pigmentation is lentigo. Lentigo does not indicate any health issues, it is simply part of the cat’s normal coloring (Source).

Dirt and Debris

It’s common for cats to get dirt, debris, and food particles stuck around their mouth, especially if they are messy eaters or outdoor cats. Small bits of kibble, canned food, treats, grass, dirt, and other debris can collect around the lips and chin. As these particles accumulate, they can make the fur appear darker colored.

Cats groom themselves constantly but may not be able to fully clean around the mouth area. Food, saliva, and debris can get lodged in the fur and dry into place. Outdoor cats that hunt or dig in the dirt may end up with more noticeable debris around their mouths that is difficult to fully wash off.

With diligent grooming and occasional gentle wiping with a warm washcloth, most stuck-on debris can be removed. It’s best to wipe gently in the direction of fur growth and not scrub hard, which could be painful for the cat. Trimming longer fur on the chin may also help reduce accumulation of particles. If the debris persists even after cleaning, it could be a sign of a skin condition like feline acne.


Melanin Activation

The increase in melanin production can sometimes be attributed to hormonal changes, especially in female cats. During pregnancy, estrogen levels rise, which stimulates the production of melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH) from the pituitary gland. MSH binds to melanocortin 1 receptors on melanocytes, triggering increased production of melanin pigment [1]. This results in darker pigmentation in areas of the body like the areolas, genitals, and mouth. After pregnancy, the hyperpigmentation usually fades as hormone levels return to normal.

Fungal Infection

Fungal infections like ringworm can sometimes cause black discoloration around a cat’s mouth. Ringworm is a skin infection caused by dermatophyte fungi and despite its name, is not caused by a worm. The fungi that cause ringworm thrive on keratin, a protein found in skin, hair and nails. Ringworm can spread from cat to cat and cat to human through direct contact or contact with contaminated objects.

Signs of a fungal infection like ringworm around the mouth can include hair loss, redness, itching, scaly patches and black crusty debris around the lips. Some cats may excessively lick the area due to irritation. Oral antifungal medications prescribed by a vet are needed to treat fungal infections. Keeping the area clean and applying topical antifungal creams can also help clear up fungal infections on the skin and mouth.

Fungal infections are contagious to other pets and humans, so proper hygiene and sanitizing environments the cat contacts is important during treatment. Left untreated, fungal infections can spread and become more serious. If a black crusty substance is noticed around a cat’s mouth, it’s a good idea to have a veterinarian examine the cat to diagnose and treat a potential fungal infection.

Bruising and Trauma

Bruising or trauma to the mouth area is one potential cause of black discoloration around a cat’s mouth. An injury, such as a bad fall, being grabbed by another animal, or being hit by a car, can result in bruising and broken blood vessels under the skin. This causes leakage of blood into the surrounding tissues, leading to purplish-black discoloration around the mouth or on the lips (1).

Blunt trauma in particular is known to cause contusions and bleeding under the skin. Even minor injuries like strains or sprains can sometimes rupture small blood vessels in the mouth region and cause bruising (2). The discoloration may start out reddish but turn darker purple, black or blue as the blood spreads through the tissue. It can take several days for the bruising to fully develop and heal.

Facial and mouth bruises indicate possible soft tissue or internal trauma, which requires veterinary examination. Cats are prone to hiding injuries, so any unexplained bruising warrants a vet visit to check for underlying damage like fractures or organ injury. With prompt care, most bruises heal on their own within 1-2 weeks. Cold compresses can provide comfort and reduce swelling in the meantime.

Oral Melanoma

Oral melanoma is a type of cancer that affects a cat’s mouth, lips, or tongue. The disease originates from melanocytes, which are pigment-producing cells. As the cancerous cells proliferate, they can cause darkening of tissues inside the mouth, which may appear black around the lips or elsewhere in the oral cavity.

According to one study published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, oral melanoma accounted for 2% of feline cancers, making it a relatively uncommon disease (citation). However, melanoma in cats is very aggressive and invasive. The dark pigmentation is often the first noticeable sign, though other symptoms like oral bleeding, bad breath, and difficulty eating may also occur.

Feline oral melanoma tends to carry a poor prognosis, as it is difficult to treat effectively with surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. Still, early intervention can extend and improve quality of life. So it is important for cat owners to monitor their pet’s mouth and consult a vet promptly if any abnormal blackening around the lips, gums, or tongue develops.

Other Diseases

There are some other illnesses that could contribute to black pigmentation around a cat’s mouth.

Feline lentigo is a benign condition where black spots appear on a cat’s skin, most commonly on the face, lips, eyelids, and nose. The spots are flat and don’t cause any pain. The cause is unknown but it tends to affect middle-aged and older cats with light-colored coats. (Source 1)

Oral melanosis is another condition where melanin builds up in the mouth tissues, leading to black pigmented spots. It is generally benign but in rare cases can indicate oral melanoma. (Source 2)

Other possibilities could include a bacterial, viral or fungal infection. Certain medications like minocycline can also cause pigment changes in the mouth.

When to See a Vet

If the black pigmentation around your cat’s mouth is accompanied by any abnormal symptoms, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your veterinarian. According to Quora, black gums can be a sign of serious health issues and warrant a prompt vet visit.

Some specific symptoms that indicate a need for veterinary examination include:

  • Bleeding from the mouth
  • Difficulty eating or swallowing
  • Excessive drooling
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy or lack of energy
  • Bad breath

If the dark pigmentation is accompanied by any of these warning signs, schedule a veterinary appointment right away. Early diagnosis and treatment is key for many feline mouth diseases.

Even if your cat seems fine otherwise, it’s a good idea to mention any new pigmentation around the mouth at your cat’s next wellness exam. The vet can take a look and determine if any tests or treatment may be needed.


In summary, black pigmentation around a cat’s mouth can have several potential causes. It may simply be normal pigmentation for some breeds. However, it can also result from dirt, debris, or dried saliva sticking to the fur. In other cases, it may signal an underlying health issue like a fungal infection, oral melanoma, or trauma. Some key takeaways:

  • Check if it’s normal pigmentation for the breed, especially in cats with black fur
  • Gently wipe with a warm, wet cloth to remove dirt or debris
  • Monitor for changes or spreading, and examine the gums and inside of the mouth
  • Schedule a vet visit promptly if accompanied by symptoms like appetite loss or lesions

While usually harmless, black pigmentation around a cat’s mouth warrants attention. Tracking changes and discussing concerns with a vet can help identify any problematic causes requiring treatment.

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