Autoimmune Diseases In Dogs: Common Issues, Symptoms & Treatment

What are Autoimmune Diseases? 

Your dog's immune system is found in its entire body and is an integral part of keeping your pet healthy. 

Made up of specialized cells (white blood cells, antibodies, histamine producing cells and others) the immune system is a network that detects and helps defend against infections (bacteria, viruses) and foreighn invaders (parasites, forieghn bodies). 

Canine autoimmune diseases are caused when the normally helpful immune system cells attack the body’s own cells and tissue. These aggressive and confused immune cells can cause a variety of issues, read on for the 3 most common autoimmune disorders in dogs.  

Autoimmune Disease in Dogs

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)

What is it?

Unlike other localized autoimmune diseases, Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) happens when the immune system overreacts and begins using antibodies to attack healthy cells indescrimitly. As the name suggests SLE can affect any system including cells, organs, and tissues, it is sometimes referred to as canine lupus.

Symptoms of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Because the immune system interacts with every system in the body, lupus in dogs can affect the skin, heart, lungs, kidneys, joints, blood, and nervous system, causing inflammation, and damage. Wile more common in dogs older than six, SLE can develop in your pet at any age and often will go through periods of remission in between flare-ups. Your pet will experience symptoms in more than one system or organ to be diagnosed with SLE. Sunlight can exacerbate some symptoms, especially if found on the skin, eyes or nose. 

Common symptoms include:

  • Discomfort or weakness in joints and muscles
  • Excessive thirst or urination
  • Ulcers or sores
  • Lesions, scars, sores, or scabbing skin
  • Recurring kidney infections 
  • Thyroid issues
  • Fur Loss
  • Discoloration of nose skin
  • Anemia
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Spleen, liver, or kidney enlargement
  • Fever

What Causes Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

There is no known cause for SLE but there may be a genetic component for some breeds, if you have access to your dog’s family history or reputable breeder it is wise to ask about any parents or siblings that have developed SLE. 
 

Treatment for Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Only your vet can diagnose and treat SLE in your pet and like other autoimmune diseases in dogs there are a variety of treatment options. Once your vet identifies the systems and severity of your pet’s case they may prescribe immunosuppressive drugs to help curb a severe autoimmune response and/or anti-inflammatories such as corticosteroids which can be helpful in reducing inflammation. 

SLE affects dogs in different ways so there is no one treatment plan that fits all pets and depending on the severity of your pet’s symptoms it may become necessary to hospitalize them, especially if their symptoms are making it hard for them to breath, eat, or if blood work shows they are Hemolytic (losing red blood cells) which would require immediate intervention. 

Most pet owners manage their dog’s autoimmune disease symptoms and flare-ups through rest, change in diet (especially if the kidneys are affected), and changes in routine as directed by their pet’s veterinarian. 

 

Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia (AIHA)

What is it?

Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia (AIHA) is a canine autoimmune disease that affects red blood cells, which are responsible for carrying oxygen and nutrients to all of the cells in the body and carrying away CO2. While your dog’s bone marrow will still be producing new red blood cells, once the blood cells are mature and released into the bloodstream the body’s antibodies miss-identify these red blood cells as harmful and destroy them. This results in blood cells that have a shortened life span and a drop in your pet’s red blood count. 

Symptoms of AIHA

As the name suggests AIHA’s main symptom is severe anemia due to insufficient red blood cells which carry oxygen to the body and brain. As your dog loses red blood cells at a quicker rate than normal the dead red blood cells (bilirubin) can build up in the urine, skin and eyes, causing them to turn yellow or orange. 

Reach out to your vet if you observe the following in your dog:

  • Fatigue
  • Pale or yellow gums 
  • Increased heat rate
  • Shortness of breath or panting
  • Appearing dizzy or uncoordinated
  • Loss of appetite
  • Yellow or jaundice skin or eyes
  • Dark yellow or orange looking urine

Causes of AIHA

There are two classifications of AIHA (primary and secondary) and each has a separate cause but both require medical attention. 

For primary AIHA the cell malfunction lies with the immune system itself with antibodies attacking healthy red blood cells. About a third of canine cases of AIHA are primary.

For secondary AIHA it is the red blood cells that have changed (by toxin, or disease) and are then targeted by antibodies who do not recognize the altered cells as red blood cells. This is most common with cases where the dog has blood or bone cancer, has come in contact with a toxin (venom, poison, or chemical) or has contracted a blood parasite. 

Treatments for AIHA

If your pet is experiencing severe or life threatening symptoms intervention will likely involve a blood transfusion or infusion. During diagnoses your vet will have likely taken a blood sample but may need to do additional blood work to identify for cross matching (similar to finding a human’s blood type) so that the transfusion or infusion is successful. 

For secondary AIHA the underlying cause of the red blood cell damage needs to be diagnosed and addressed, this can include antibiotics, anti-venom, antiparasitics, or other medications to stem the hep return the red blood cells to normal function. 

If your pet has primary AIHA your vet will most likely prescribe azathioprine,  prednisone, or cyclosporine, immunosuppressives that should quickly go to work to stem the loss of red blood cells but can leave your dog more susceptible to other kinds of illness since they weaken the immune system by design. If your pet is taking an immunosuppressive make sure that it stays away from other sick animals, gets plenty of rest and fluids and tell your vet if they develop a fever or worsening symptoms. 

 

Immune-Mediated Thrombocytopenia

What is it?

Immune-Mediated Thrombocytopenia (ITP) is a canine autoimmune disease that affects the body’s platelets, specialized cells found in the bloodstream that help wounds clot and aid in healing. Like AIHA this canine autoimmune disease destroys cells faster than the typical lifetime of the cell, leaving the body with excess cell waste and not enough of a vital blood cell. 

Symptoms of ITP

When your body is wounded (small or large) platelets form the first layer of protection, creating a barrier that stems blood from leaving the body and helping the body form a scab to start healing the area. We often don’t realize that wounds can be very small and are a constant of everyday life so when your dog doesn’t have enough platelets you may notice that they have bleeding gums, nose, or if they have a larger wound that seems to not be scabbing over and keeps bleeding. 

Other symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fogginess (can’t get their attention)
  • Decreased appetite
  • Excessive panting (even when well rested and at a comfortable temperature)
  • Inability or resistance to exercise
  • Dark urine or black stool

 

Cost of Canine Autoimmune Disease Treatment

The cost of diagnosing and treating an autoimmune disease your dog can be high. Diagnostic expenses can be upwards of $1,000, with treatment and the drugs that might be involved with treatment dependent upon the type of autoimmune disease and the course of action prescribed by the veterinarian.

Some autoimmune disease treatments can cost more than $20,000.

 

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For information on other common dog health problems, read our article 31 Most Common Dog Health Problems.

 

References:

  1. Website. (2020). Systemic Autoimmune Disease in Dogs. Retrieved from https://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/endocrine/c_dg_lupus_erythematosus
  2. Leira R. BSc, DVM & Yuill C. DVM, MSc, CVH. (2020). Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia in Dogs. Retrieved from https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/autoimmune-hemolytic-anemia-in-dogs
  3. Clark M. (2020). Autoimmune Disease In Dogs: Types, Symptoms, And Treatments. Retrieved from https://dogtime.com/dog-health/52995-autoimmune-disease-dogs-types-symptoms-treatments
  4. Website. (2020) Immune Mediated Thrombocytopenia in Dogs. Retrieved from https://bluepearlvet.com/medical-articles-for-pet-owners/immune-mediated-thrombocytopenia-and-hemolytic-anemia-in-dogs/
  5. PDF. (2020) Canine Immune-Mediated Thrombocytopenia. Retrieved from http://scvsec.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Immune-Mediated-Thrombocytopenia-Canine.pdf