Piebald Animals: What Are They and Why Are They So Unique?

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 25th September 2023

piebald animals
A beautiful pinto horse running on desert storm | Nemyrivskyi Viacheslav via Istock

Piebald or pied refers to an animal with a pattern of white patches on a dark backdrop of hair, feathers, or scales.

This means that a black dog with white patches is a piebald.

There is no pigmentation on the animal’s skin when the white backdrop is visible.

Unpigmented areas appear when melanoblasts (primary pigment cells) have migrated from the neural crest to paired, bilateral sites in the skin of the early embryo.

The final pattern will look symmetrical if melanoblasts move to both sites in a pair and multiply at the same pace.

If the melanocytes (pigment cells) inside the emerging spots grow and spread to such an extent that the spot sizes rise to the point where some of the spots combine, the appearance of symmetry can be destroyed, leaving only small sections of the white background between the spots and to the tips of the extremities.

piebald animals
A jacob sheep with newborn lamb in beautiful countryside setting / cjp via Istock

Various animals may display this pattern, such as birds, cats, cattle, dogs, foxes, horses, cetaceans, deer, pigs, and snakes.

There are creatures whose irises are the same color as the rest of their skin (blue eyes for pink skin, brown for dark).

The hereditary disorder known as leucism is connected to the underlying cause.

Gage Beasley's In-Demand Plush Toys
Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

The Origins Of The Word Piebald

piebald animals
A piebald horse, seamlessly flaunting that black and white! | Serge Cornu via Getty Images

The term “piebald” is a portmanteau of the words “pie,” from the word “magpie” and “bald,” which means “white patch” or “spot.”

This alludes to the magpie’s contrasting black and white feathers.

The term “pied” arose in Middle English and referred to alternating, contrasting colors for the four halves of a garment, shield, or other heraldic devices.

The moniker of the Pied Piper of Hamelin comes from the fact that court jesters and minstrels are commonly pictured wearing a “pied” garb.

The Most Famous Piebald Animals: Horses And Dogs


piebald animals
A batch of beautiful Irish cobs running in freedom | Zuzule via Getty Images

The British have their own words for the different patterns of coloring seen on the horses’ coats.

These are piebald and skewbald. These phrases refer solely to the horse’s outward appearance, not its breed or genetics.

Registration officials can identify certain marking patterns in addition to coloring.

An ideal piebald or skewbald horse, as defined by the British Skewbald and Piebald Association, would have an even distribution of its two colors.

Big, erratic black and white spots characterize the coats of piebald horses.

Horses classified as piebald or skewbald should have white markings that extend to the base color.

Here are the colorations into which piebald (and skewbald) horses are classified.


piebald animals
Miniature frame overo | Pete Markham via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Overo patterns, which are recessive genetically, can appear in foals with two solid-colored parents who are carriers of the gene.

It is possible for a piebald or skewbald horse to have traits of more than one overo pattern. Several different types of coloring are considered overo.

One type of overo design is termed a frame because it resembles a colorful border around the white markings of a horse.

Other types of overo include sabino and splashed white.

The BSPA classifies overo patterns as distinct from tobiano patterns.

This is because overo-patterned horses appear to have been painted from the bottom up.


piebald animals
A Tovero colored mare with two blue eyes and a black “shield” on her face. | SkippyTheWonder via English Wikipedia (CC BY 2.5)

Traits and genes for the tobiano and overo color patterns may be seen in tovero-patterned horses.

Most Tovero horses have at least one blue eye and are marked in bright colors on a white background.

There are known genetic markers for tobiano and overo patterns, but no such thing exists for tovero.

The name “Tovero” refers to the unique pattern of colors on the horse’s coat.

These kinds of patterns are frequently seen in mostly white horses.


piebald animals
The tobiano pattern for horses | Jean-Pol GRANDMONT via Wikipedia (CC BY 2.5)

The tobiano pattern is the most well-known form of the piebald and skewbald coat colors because a dominant gene causes it.

There is a common misconception that all Tobiano horses have brown eyes, a black mane, and a tail.

The BSPA claims that tobiano horses appear as though a bucket of paint had dropped from above over a white horse.

The term “tobiano” is used to describe a single pattern, as opposed to the two patterns that “overo” and “tovero” describe.


Photo: Mary Swift via Getty Images

Piebald dogs, sometimes known as “pieds,” may be distinguished from other coat types by their unique sporadic white marking patterns. 

Piebald coats, often called “cowlike” coats, are distinguished by their asymmetrical white dotting and regions of color.

It’s important to keep in mind that a piebald coat goes by a variety of other names, too, such as “Landseer” in Newfoundlands, “panda” in German shepherds, and “flowered” in Shar Peis.

Also, you should know that the mantle and Irish spotting coat patterns are comparable to the piebald coat pattern, despite their differences.

However, this coat pattern is generated by a distinct gene mutation from the others.

There are over 25 dog breeds that can carry the piebald gene, so you’ve probably encountered a piebald dog without realizing it.

How Do We Know If A Dog Will Be Piebald?

Beagles with recessive red have the Piebald gene as well. | Julien Valroff via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.0 fr)

Like all other coat patterns, piebald coats are caused by a dog’s genes.

Canine piebaldness is caused by a mutation in the gene encoding microphthalmia-associated transcription factor (MATF). This results in the random loss of pigmentation seen in spotted dogs.

Piebalds’ white coloration is linked to the S locus gene. Canines with only one S locus copy are less likely to be completely white than those with two copies.

Breeding a piebald dog does not guarantee that all of its offspring will be piebald.

The mode of inheritance for the piebald gene ranges from partial dominant to autosomal recessive.

It’s possible, but not assured, that this is the case in many situations.

In breeds where the gene is passed down recessively, even two seemingly normal dogs could have a baby who is piebald.

Other Known Piebald Animals

A bald eagle and its chick
A bald eagle and its chick / BrianEKushner via Getty Images
  • The numerous species of magpie give the term “pied” its name.
  • The term “piebald,” from which the bald eagle gets its name, refers to the striking visual contrast between the bird’s white head and tail and its black body.
  • The term “pied” was also used to refer to kingfishers in Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist.
  • Sometimes, snakes, particularly ball pythons and corn snakes, will have areas of their skin that are entirely devoid of pigmentation alongside areas that are colored. A piebald blood python was found in Sumatra in 2013.
  • Some foxes raised at the Russian Institute of Cytology and Genetics also have this coloring.
  • White-spotting is a heritable trait in bicolor cats (incorrectly called the piebald gene). When the white spotting gene is piebald and not another white-causing gene prevalent in dogs, the same pattern occurs as with cats.
  • The piebald gene is also present in cows, ferrets, domestic goats, goldfish, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, and fancy rats.
  • It is common for Holstein and Simmental breeds cattle to have a piebald pattern on their coats.

Can Humans Be Piebald?

This condition affects melanocyte development | Photo via National Cancer Institute

Yes, humans can be piebald.

Most people with piebaldism also have additional areas of their skin lacking pigmentation; these areas are often bilaterally symmetrical.

Spots or patches of pigmented skin may exist within or around the periphery of the unpigmented sections.

The lack of pigmentation is often present at birth and does not spread.

Intense UV rays from the sun can cause the unpigmented areas to burn or even cause skin cancer.

People with piebaldism may feel embarrassed by the visibility of their unpigmented patches.

This may be the case especially if they have a darker skin tone. Other than these concerns, the affected person’s health is unaffected by this condition.


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