Autoimmune disease in dogs

Cocker spaniel with tongue out
Dogs, just like humans, can suffer from autoimmune diseases. Fortunately they are rare. However, it’s still worth learning more about the common diseases and their symptoms, so you can learn how to spot the signs early, should your dog become unwell.

What is an autoimmune disease?

In simple terms, an autoimmune disease is when the body’s own defence system turns on itself and attacks healthy tissues, mistakenly thinking they’re a threat. Instead of the immune system keeping the dog healthy, it actually does the opposite.

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What are some common autoimmune diseases in dogs?

Addison's Disease (Hypoadrenocorticism):

This condition is caused by a lack of cortisol and aldosterone hormones, which causes the immune system to attack the adrenal glands, which in turn leads to hormonal imbalances. Usually, this is a hereditary condition. It’s not always easy to spot the symptoms of Addison’s Disease as they can come and go, and appear similar to other conditions. Once the condition becomes acute, symptoms can include vomiting, diarrhoea, lethargy and changes in appetite. It’s essential to seek veterinary assistance as soon as possible.

Autoimmune Hemolytic Anaemia (AIHA) - also known as Immune-Mediated Hemolytic Anaemia (IMHA):

This condition causes the immune system to attack and destroy its own red blood cells, which in turn leads to anaemia. Usually the condition is caused by the immune system not working correctly, although it can also arise due to other diseases or occurrences, like cancer, blood parasites, snake bites or bee stings.

Symptoms can include lethargy, weakness, jaundice, pale gums and rapid breathing. It’s important to seek medical treatment urgently in order to prevent severe complications. Depending on the cause and severity, treatments can include blood transfusions, immunosuppressive therapy or treatments to address the secondary cause. 

Autoimmune skin diseases:

There are a number of autoimmune conditions where the immune system attacks the skin, such as Pemphigus and Discoid Lupus Erythematosus (DLE). Symptoms can include blistering, ulceration and loss of hair. A vet can assess these dermatological problems to come up with the best possible plan of treatment.

Immune-Mediated Thrombocytopenia (ITP):

With ITP, the immune system attacks platelets, which are the fragments in blood cells that enable clotting. Low platelet levels increase the risk of severe bleeding and can result in petechiae, which are small red spots on the skin or gums. You should seek treatment from your vet urgently if you suspect your dog has ITP. Depending on the cause, treatments include blood transfusions, immunosuppressive therapy and treatments for any underlying issues that may have triggered the condition.

Rheumatoid arthritis:

Similar to the disease found in humans, this is a lifelong condition that negatively affects the cartilage in joints, causing pain, inflammation and mobility issues. A professional diagnosis and management plan are essential to keep your dog comfortable.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE):

SLE is a complex autoimmune disease that can affect various organs and systems. Symptoms include lethargy, loss of appetite, lameness, skin irritation, loss of hair, ulcers, fever, muscle pain and problems with the nervous system.

The breeds that are more likely to develop SLE tend to be medium to large dogs, including Collies, German Shepherds, and Shetland Sheepdogs.

Treatment for this condition is complex and it depends on which systems and parts of the body are affected. It can vary from rest, dietary changes and protection from the sun, through to immunosuppressive therapy, which can have potentially serious side effects long term.

In general, when it comes to autoimmune diseases, what are the key symptoms I should watch out for?

Given the broad range of symptoms that autoimmune diseases can cause, it’s difficult to provide an exhaustive list, but there are some general indicators that you should pay attention to:

  • Is your dog abnormally weak or tired?
  • Does your dog appear to have a fever?
  • Do they appear to have any swelling, mobility issues or joint pain?
  • Are there any abnormalities on their skin, such as lesions, hair loss or rashes?
  • Are they bleeding or bruising for apparently no reason?
  • Have they lost their appetite?
  • Do they have pale or yellow gums? This can indicate anaemia or problems with their liver

What should I do if I think my dog has an autoimmune disease?

If you spot any of the symptoms listed above, contact your vet for more information. Early diagnosis and medical intervention is very important in giving your dog their best chance at managing or overcoming their condition and maintaining a good quality of life.

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Think your dog may be affected?

If you're worried about your dog's health, always contact your vet immediately!

We are not a veterinary organisation and so we can't give veterinary advice, but if you're worried about any of the issues raised in this article, please contact your local vet practice for further information