Autoimmune Disease in Dogs: A Helpful Guide

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Life with pets is full of interesting twists and turns, especially when it comes to navigating their health. Understanding their symptoms and identifying possible health conditions all comes down to what’s considered normal (or abnormal) for your dog. Autoimmune disease in dogs, specifically, can result in a range of symptoms and signs that show your dog isn’t feeling well.

A dog’s immune system functions in a similar fashion to a human’s: it is a network made up of white blood cells and antibodies to fight infection, bacteria, and viruses. If your dog is suffering from an autoimmune disease, the body is essentially attacking itself. Depending on the progression and severity of the disease, it can be fatal, so it’s important to pay careful attention to any changes in appearance or behavior in your pet, no matter how minor it may first seem.

This guide will help you become more familiar with the different types of autoimmune diseases in dogs, symptoms, treatment, and how to move forward once your dog has been diagnosed. Not all dogs will respond in the same way to this kind of disease, but you can at least have a good idea of what to look out for and know how to handle the symptoms if and when the time comes.

Types of Autoimmune Disease in Dogs

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Canine autoimmune disease can take different routes and may single out one organ of the body or may affect multiple areas. Your pet can be affected via his:

In some cases, your dog may develop more than one type of disease. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common types of autoimmune diseases in dogs and the symptoms that accompany them.

Endocrine – Addison’s Disease

Addison’s Disease in dogs refers to a disruption in the body’s endocrine system due to the lack of corticosteroids being produced. It can make your dog feel extra tired or depressed and may also result in obvious side effects like vomiting or diarrhea.

Blood – AIHA

Autoimmune hemolytic anemia or AIHA is when the body attacks its own red blood cells. The majority of cases are primary, which means the immune system is not working properly and antibodies are destroying red blood cells.

If the AIHA is categorized as secondary, it’s a result of an underlying disease, such as canine cancer, parasites, infection, or some type of negative reaction to a bee sting or snake bite. Symptoms of this type of autoimmune disease include pale gums, fatigue, or fainting, among others.

Skin – Pemphigus vulgaris

Pemphigus vulgaris is visibly noticeable by symptoms such as pus-filled sores, scabs, scaly skin, and blisters. Normally, the immune system works to clear up infections or other substances “foreign” to the body, but when this disease occurs, the immune system mistakenly considers normal skin elements as foreign and tries to get rid of them. Pemphigus vulgaris is the most severe form of the disease and results in ulcers that may appear at the mouth, nose, or other areas of the body.

Eyes – Uveitis

Uveitis in dogs is defined as an inflammation of the eye(s). It’s painful for your pet and may cause redness, excessive tearing, and your dog may continuously paw at the affected eye. Although this can be a result of an autoimmune disease, uveitis can also be the result of tumors or traumatic injury. Your veterinarian can administer the proper tests to deliver a diagnosis.

These are only a few of the conditions and symptoms that may be apparent in your dog, if he is suffering from an autoimmune disease. Record any behavioral or physical changes in your pet for your veterinarian. Any documented information you can provide will be helpful when you take your dog in for care.

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Since any of these symptoms could also be the result of allergies, stress, or a number of health conditions, it’s best to have your dog checked out. Once his doctor can assess your dog’s medical condition and run any necessary tests, you can get a clearer picture of his health and take the proper treatment steps.

Lupus in Dogs

Lupus is also a common canine autoimmune disease. Discoid lupus erythematosus is the disease in its less threatening form, but the rarer systemic lupus erythematosus can be fatal. It causes inflammation of most of the major organs, such as the heart, kidneys, and lungs. It is mostly identifiable by severe arthritis or lameness. Other symptoms can include: hair loss, mouth ulcers, seizures, swollen lymph nodes, and dementia.

MIddle-aged female dogs are more susceptible to lupus. And, breeds most likely affected include Beagles, German Shepherds, Old English Sheepdogs, Poodles, Irish Setters, and Afghan Hounds. Treatment for lupus in dogs requires long-term management, which includes medication and lifestyle changes to help limit inflammation and other symptoms from occurring.

General Symptoms of Canine Autoimmune Disease

In addition to the specific types of the disease already listed, there are general symptoms that may fall into multiple categories. Autoimmune disease in dogs can also cause:

These symptoms range from mild to severe and are not always immediately noticeable. They also might be indicative of something other than an autoimmune disease, so a trip to the veterinarian is the best way to get the answers you need.

How Is a Canine Autoimmune Disease Diagnosed?

A proper diagnosis is important for your dog to receive the correct treatment. In order to reach this conclusion, the veterinarian will first perform a full checkup, which may include blood tests to cancel out diseases with similar symptoms. Depending on which kind of disease your pet is suffering from, a skin biopsy might also be necessary.

Let your veterinarian know of any symptoms you’ve noticed, signs of distress in your dog, and if you have already tried to implement any kind of treatment at home. In severe cases, hospitalization might be necessary, but more often than not, at-home care is the answer.

This is a progressive and unpredictable disease. Long-term, immunosuppressive therapy will be required. The treatments frequently have side effects that you will need to know how to take care of as well. Also, your veterinarian will want to see your dog weekly, at least initially, to monitor the effectiveness of the treatment and to watch for severe side effects.

Treatment and Follow-Up Care

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Depending on which type of disease your dog has been diagnosed with and what organs have been affected, the treatment plan will most likely include a combination of steroids and antibiotics. Although medication is the most common treatment for autoimmune disease, many find alternative methods with more holistic approaches to serve as a complement to prescribed care. To keep your dog as healthy as possible, treatment may include:

  • Canine massage or acupuncture performed by a trained professional. This can help alleviate stress, tension, and pain your dog might be experiencing as a result of the disease. It’s not a cure but often helps keep symptoms at bay.
  • Hydrotherapy which could help especially for arthritis pain. For older pups or those who experience pain in their joints and muscles, hydrotherapy is a soothing option that helps remedy stiff and sore areas.
  • Daily dose of vitamins E and C. Vitamins can help your dog stave off illness and help strengthen the system to fight off secondary infections or additional health conditions.
  • Change in diet to include unprocessed foods free of preservatives or chemicals. A healthful diet rich in nutrients will contribute to a holistic approach to prevent symptoms and side effects to medication. Additionally, as your dog ages and his body changes over time, he may develop certain allergies or aversions to different foods as well, which you may want him tested for, too.
  • A calmer environment to alleviate unnecessary stress, which only aggravates symptoms and can make the disease feel worse.

Autoimmune diseases aren’t curable but they are treatable. To know which treatment is best for your dog, consult your veterinarian. Together decide what method might be most effective for his specific kind of disease and symptoms. It will most likely mean a change in lifestyle in order to keep your pet as healthy as possible.

FAQs about Autoimmune Disease in Dogs

My dog won’t eat – is this a sign of autoimmune disease?

Possibly. If you’ve noticed a loss of appetite in your dog, it can be the result of an autoimmune disease, especially if he is also dehydrated or feeling lethargic. Document when the behavior started and how extreme it is. For example, if your dog normally eats a full bowl of food twice a day, but has started to leave it mostly full for several days, it could be symptomatic of a bigger problem.

How do I know if my dog’s symptoms are just a temporary reaction or something more serious?

You know your dog’