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
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:
- Endocrine (Addison’s disease, diabetes, autoimmune thyroiditis)
- Blood (autoimmune hemolytic anemia (AIHA)
- Skin (pemphigus vulgaris, system lupus)
- Eyes (uveitis, dry eye)
- Digestive system (inflammatory bowel disease)
- Joints (rheumatoid arthritis)
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.
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:
- Muscle weakness
- Kidney failure
- Abdominal pain
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Internal bleeding
- Weight loss
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
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’s behavior better than anyone. Symptoms like loss of appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea, at first may not seem serious. It could be a short-lived illness or reaction to something he’s eaten. However, if the symptoms last for multiple days and grow more severe, it’s worth an appointment with your veterinary clinic. Even if it turns out to be a temporary bug, it’s better to know in advance rather than let the conditions worsen.
Does my dog’s breed play a role in how likely he will experience an autoimmune disease?
Certain breeds are predisposed to certain types of disease. For example, Chow Chows, Dachshunds, Akitas, and Doberman Pinschers are more likely to develop the skin disease pemphigus. Whereas, Huskies, Collies, and German Shepherds are more susceptible to lupus. Ask your veterinarian during your dog’s checkups, what kind of diseases are most commonly associated with your dog’s breed to take as much preventative action as possible.
Are there ways to prevent autoimmune disease in my pet?
Since there’s no one cause for canine autoimmune disease, there’s no one way to prevent it. The best thing you can do for your dog is to keep him as healthy as possible. This means scheduling regular veterinary checkups, paying attention to any changes in behavior, and providing proper nutrition and exercise for your pet.
If your dog has to take medication for anything, this may alter what your pet can and cannot eat, so make sure you are aware of all the side effects and best health practices to care for your dog.
I’ve heard the sun is bad for my dog, is that true?
Excessive exposure to sunlight can exacerbate disease conditions associated with pemphigus vulgaris. With any disease that affects the skin, too much time in the sun may only make symptoms flare up or worsen. It doesn’t mean your dog can’t go outside; you’ll just want to limit his time, especially during the peak of midday between 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM.
Caring for Your Dog
Being a pet owner is a lot of fun but it also comes with a lot of responsibility. Keep your veterinarian’s number handy with a list of current medications, allergies, and notes about your pet. This proves helpful not just for you to have whenever necessary, but for others who may care for your dog as well.
It’s never fun to see your dog in pain. But the more you learn about conditions dogs may be susceptible to and how they can be treated, the more confident you’ll be in identifying when something is wrong. As your dog ages, he will naturally slow down his routine, which is normal. Keep an eye out for any sudden changes, though, or actions that seem out of character for your pet. Your dog will show you how he’s feeling through his behavior. “Listen” to him when it seems like something isn’t quite right.
Also, take precautions whenever possible and keep your pet in good overall health. It’s never too late to start following a consistent wellness regimen for your dog, giving him the kind of nutrition, exercise, and care he deserves.