Canine autoimmune diseases, disorders in which the immune system attacks the body’s own cells and tissue, cover a broad variety of conditions that affect the immune system—a network of white blood cells, antibodies and other defenses that fight infection and foreign substances in the body, including bacteria and viruses.
A canine autoimmune disorder can be life threatening depending on which organ or tissue the immune system rejects. There are many types of autoimmune diseases in dogs with myriad symptoms, and treatment depends on what autoimmune disorder with which a dog is afflicted.
Autoimmune Disease Causes
Vaccination booster injections are one possible cause behind canine autoimmune diseases. Vaccines stimulate the immune system, and if a dog has an autoimmune disease, the vaccines could potentially adversely stimulate the dog’s immune system. Once a dog is known to have an immune-mediated disease, it’s to keep vaccines to a minimum or to stop them. Instead, the dog can get titer tested. Titer testing involves testing a dog’s blood for levels of antibodies to protect against canine diseases, including parvovirus, distemper, rabies and adenovirus.
Sulfa drugs, antibiotics designed to treat bacterial, respiratory and urinary infections as well as bowel inflammation and types of gastrointestinal conditions, can also trigger autoimmune reactions in some dogs.
As they say, you can’t outrun your genetics, and dogs are no different. Some breeds, including cocker spaniels, German shepherd dogs, poodles, collies, beagles, Irish setters, Afghan hounds, Doberman pinschers and old English sheepdogs are most at risk for autoimmune diseases.
Ticks also are a cause, but it can be tricky to definitely identify a disease-borne tick for triggering a canine autoimmune disease, because doing so can take weeks or even months.
Causes and Treatment
To determine the root cause, veterinarians must gather detailed medical histories, analyze blood and urine samples, take biopsy samples and perform X-rays, ultrasounds and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine whether a dog has an autoimmune disease, is reacting to eating swallowed pennies, has an infection or is suffering an intestinal obstruction.
Treatment plans must be tailored to the specific needs of each dog dealing with an autoimmune disease. Immune-mediated diseases are challenging to address, meaning dog owners must know this a lifelong issue that is managed—not cured. Following your dog’s veterinarian’s advice and care plan, and being an engaged caregiver, can make a huge difference in your pup’s long-term health and well-being.
In addition to medication, holistic veterinary treatment may prove helpful, including switching your dog’s diet to homemade (while ensuring its nutritional needs are still met), canine massage by a professional aware of your dog’s disease, supplements (omega-3, vitamin E, selenium and vitamin C), reducing anything that causes stress or anxiety in your dog’s life, hydrotherapy (especially helpful for dogs suffering from arthritis) or acupuncture from a trained and licensed professional.
Canine Autoimmune Disease Details
- Systemic lupus erythematosus occurs when antibodies in the blood attack the body’s cells and tissue; usually more than one organ will be affected. Symptoms include lameness/pain in one or more joints and muscles; increased drinking or urination; ulcers on the face or feet; lesions, scars, ulceration, or crusting on the skin; alopecia (hair loss); loss of nose pigmen; fever; anemia; thyroid problems; swollen lymph nodes; kidney infections; and spleen, liver or kidney enlargement. Causes are unknown, but there is a hereditary component for some dogs, and exposure to ultraviolet light makes the condition worse.
- Immune-mediated thrombocytopenia, when the immune system attacks the cells responsible for forming blood clots, is characterized by bruising, excessive bleeding after an injury or surgery, excessive bleeding during menstruation and blood in the urine or stool. Your dog’s veterinarian will administer corticosteroids and immunosuppressive drugs, may remove the spleen or perform a blood or plasma transfusion. Female dogs may need an ovariohysterectomy to decrease uterine hemorrhage risk.
- Autoimmune hemolytic anemia occurs when the immune system attacks the body’s red blood cells responsible for bringing oxygen from the lungs to all tissues of the body. Red blood cells are destroyed or damaged faster than they can be replaced. Symptoms include weakness or lethargy; weight loss or anorexia; increased heart rate and breathing; pale mucous membranes on the gums and eyes; fever; jaundice; discoloration of the eyes, gums and skin; and collapse in severe cases. Causes are unknown. Corticosteroids and immunosuppressive drugs are usually prescribed to manage the condition. In cases where drugs are ineffective, the spleen, responsible for destroying red blood cells that the body deems damaged or no longer useful, may be removed.
· Autoimmune skin diseases usually involve treatment of topical corticosteroids or low to medium doses of prednisone. Minor cases can require very little treatment; more severe cases necessitate frequent veterinary visits with strict instructions for medication. Discoid lupus erythematosis affects the face and nose, with loss of pigment, scaly skin or scabby sores around the nose. Ultraviolet light worsens nasal scarring. Pemphigus manifests in scaly skin, scabs or pus-filled sores and blisters that rupture quickly. In some forms, pemphigus sometimes is confined to the head and feet before spreading elsewhere. In the most severe form, ulcers can appear at the mouth, anus, prepuce, nose and vagina. Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada-like syndrome causes pigmentation loss along with eye disease. The nose, lips, eyelids, footpads and anus turn from black to pink or white, and the eyes become severely infected. Early treatment can prevent blindness. Immune-mediated polyarthritis is characterized by high fever, joint pain or swelling, lameness and enlarged lymph nodes. About half of diagnosed cases go into remission after being treated with corticosteroids.