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Autoimmune Disease in Cats – Diagnosis and Treatments

Picture of a white cat

Cats and dogs can have an autoimmune disease, just like humans. In this situation, a cat’s immune system would become incapable of distinguishing between its own cells or tissues. Since it believes that they are foreign, the immune system basically attacks the cat’s body even though it is healthy.

In this post, we are looking at what types of autoimmune diseases most commonly affect cats, their clinical signs, how they are diagnosed, and whether or not there is any effective treatment for them.

Why do cats develop autoimmune disorders?

It is still unclear what the exact cause of any autoimmune disease is, but some of the possible culprits range from stress to certain drugs or environmental pollutants. 

One of the most dangerous types of autoimmune diseases in cats is Systemic Lupus Erythematosus. This condition seems to affect certain breeds more than others, and the most exposed ones are Himalayan cats, Persian ones, as well as Siamese breeds. 

In general, an autoimmune disease appears in animals that are around 6-7 years old, but it can show up at any age. The cat’s gender doesn’t seem to influence the incidence. 

Types of autoimmune disorders in cats

There are a variety of autoimmune disorders that can affect our feline friends, and many of them affect their skin, but there are others that tend to affect other tissues. Here are some of the most common autoimmune conditions in cats:

  • Pemphigus
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Immune-mediated thrombocytopenia, hemolytic anemia, or polyarthritis
  • Dry eye syndrome
  • Immune-mediated polyneuropathy
  • Eosinophilic granuloma complex
  • Inflammatory bowel disease

In general, autoimmune disorders have a range of symptoms, from skin swelling, ulcers, bumps, and lumps, to joint inflammation and aches, digestive problems, and poor general health status.  

In most cases, the therapy of an autoimmune disorder involves the use of immunosuppressants, which typically consist of corticoids, for example. Unfortunately, this means that the medication will, at some point, cause a series of side effects, so going on and off the meds happens in most cats so as to give their bodies a break. 

  • Pemphigus

This is a rare autoimmune disease that affects the skin, and that’s characterized by the appearance of vesicles that rupture and form erosions on the pet’s skin. It seems that it can be developed due to therapy using ampicillin or cimetidine, but it’s also linked to genetic predispositions. 

There are several types of pemphigus that affect cats, and they are the following:

  • Pemphigus foliaceus (which affects the superficial layer of the epidermis)
  • Pemphigus erythematosus (which affects both the cat’s feet and its head)
  • Pemphigus vulgaris (which leads to the appearance of deep blisters in the secondary layers of the skin). 

Cats that have pemphigus usually have red spots or hair loss on some areas, erosions, skin discoloration, pain and lameness in their ears, groin, armpits, and even skin ulcers. 

Pemphigus is usually treated with analgesics, corticosteroids, and immunomodulating agents. To prevent bacterial complications, some cats might have to take antibiotics, too. 

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus

SLE is a somewhat rare autoimmune disease in cats, but it can still affect some animals. In this case, the pet’s immune system attacks itself and affects a variety of tissues and organs from the skin and joints to the heart, kidneys, and even the cat’s lungs.

Cats that have SLE can experience different forms of it. There are at least 6 types, but also a general one that affects several organs at the same time.

  • Renal
  • Musculoskeletal
  • Dermatologic
  • Hematologic
  • Neurological
  • Generalized

Like with other autoimmune disorders, there is no known treatment for SLE, but its symptoms can be alleviated using NSAIDs, corticosteroids, or cyclosporine. 

  • Discoid lupus erythematosus

This is an autoimmune disorder that affects the skin, and that consists of discoloration around the cat’s eyes and lips, but it can also affect the genital area and the ears. The only time when DLE is dangerous is when it leads to the development of skin ulcers. 

Many cats don’t seem to mind the discoloration, however, and they can live with it perfectly well. Compared to other forms of lupus or autoimmune disorders, DLE is far easier to manage, and it doesn’t affect the general health of the animal so severely. 

  • Dry eye syndrome

Also known as KCS (keratoconjunctivitis sicca), DES is a disease that makes cats incapable of secreting sufficient amounts of tears. This causes the conjunctiva and cornea to get dry and experience inflammation and irritation. In some cases, the cat can suffer corneal ulcers, which can lead to partial or complete blindness and bacterial complications.

In terms of the clinical signs that are noticeable in a cat that has DES, you might see anything from painful red eyes to excessive blinking, photophobia, not wanting to open its eyes, or swollen eyelids.

DES can be managed with the use of artificial tears 3-5 times a day, but the veterinarian might also prescribe an immuno-modulator, antibiotics, or corticosteroids. 

  • Inflammatory bowel disease

IBS is a generic denomination for several different diseases. Although they all are autoimmune disorders, they can affect different parts of the intestines. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Colitis
  • Enteritis
  • Enterocolitis
  • Gastritis

IBS mostly shows up in middle-aged and older cats and is the most common cause of vomiting in this species. Most cats that have IBS experience lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and they also gradually lose weight. 

Once the condition is diagnosed, the cat can receive treatment with anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, corticosteroids, as well as immunosuppressive medications. 

Prognosis and future development

Unfortunately, autoimmune disorders are usually hard to treat, and they are rarely reversible. 

This means that, if your feline friend is diagnosed with one of the diseases that we have discussed in this post, you will have the responsibility of taking him or her in for checkups on a regular basis, giving them different meds if the ones they were put on didn’t work, and trying everything in your power to make things easier for your cat. 

With the appropriate medication, you will be happy to know that autoimmune diseases can at least be controlled. 

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