Autoimmune Disease in Dogs

Picture of a Collie

Immune-deficiency diseases can have serious consequences on a dog’s natural defenses against all types of infections. The term ‘autoimmune disease’ has been making the rounds among dog breeders and pet parents, especially.

Both in people and animals, the immune system is an amazing defense network composed of antibodies, white blood cells, and a variety of other substances that are capable of fighting off infections and that are also able to reject foreign proteins. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to compare the immune system to a police patrol that recognizes the body’s cells from those that don’t belong to the body, and that can cause issues.

Autoimmune disease is a situation where the immune system fails, and its ability to make the difference between the body’s cells and those that might pose a threat disappears.

There are several autoimmune diseases that dogs can suffer from, and we’ll do our best to describe them all in this post. We’ll also discuss whether autoimmune disease has any causes, some of its most common forms that can affect dogs, and what treatment options are currently available.


Unfortunately, the exact cause or causes of autoimmune disease aren’t yet understood. There are veterinarians and scientists who theorize that environmental pollutants, along with some genetic factors can play a part in the process. According to others, exposure to ultraviolet rays can predispose or trigger an autoimmune skin disease in some types of dogs.

No matter the cause, the truth is that if it is left untreated, autoimmune disease can endanger a dog’s life. That is why early recognition can be very important. The more it progresses, the more difficult it can be for autoimmune disease to be correctly diagnosed.

Types of Autoimmune Diseases in Dogs

Due to their frequency, autoimmune diseases can be systemic or they can strictly affect the dog’s skin. Let’s look at several common ones.

Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia

Anemia is basically a decrease in the number of red blood cells or the quantity of hemoglobin in them. This means that the blood is less effective when it comes to transporting nutrients and oxygen to the dog’s organs. Anemia can be caused by blood loss, lower production of new red blood cells, but also an increase in their rate of destruction — and the latter is known as hemolytic anemia.

Hemolytic anemia can be secondary to infectious diseases, blood parasites, drugs, cancer, or heavy metals. For example, some of the factors that have been involved in causing hemolytic anemia are certain antibiotics, zinc, levamisole, or exposure to lead.

Some of the clinical signs that dog parents might notice in their furry babies if they begin suffering from hemolytic anemia range from pale mucous membranes (gums and eyelids) and heart murmurs to fever, jaundice, or yellow discoloration of the gums or skin.

Treating hemolytic anemia can be done with the use of medication (from corticosteroids to potent immunosuppressive drugs such as Imuran or Cytoxan). In some advanced cases, and especially if the dog seems to be unresponsive to the drugs, splenectomy (surgical removal of the spleen) can be performed, as well. Since the spleen is in charge of destroying red blood cells, the procedure can benefit the dog and extend his life.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that affects humans and animals alike. It is characterized by a variety of symptoms, and most of them can be very confusing. Sometimes, the dog can suffer from hemolytic anemia or leukopenia, or symmetrical dermatitis that doesn’t seem to have any other cause.

Lupus can affect multiple muscle groups, causing muscle wasting, fever and pain, and gait abnormalities, and it can also affect the kidney (glomerulus), in which case the patient suffers from protein loss through the urine and in some cases, it can even lead to kidney failure.


Immune-mediated polyarthritis shows up in toy breeds more often than in larger breeds. Some of its clinical signs range from joint pain and swelling to a high fever and lameness in one or more legs. Treatment involves the use of Imuran or Cytoxan, as well as steroids.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

IBD is a condition involving inflammation of the walls of the GI tract. Some of its signs can range from decreased appetite, frequent vomiting, and weight loss to frequent defecation, liquid diarrhea, or loose stool. While the clinical signs of IBD can be somewhat similar to those characterizing irritable bowel syndrome in humans, the two are actually different.

In dogs, IBD happens when the lining of the intestine is altered by inflammation cells. The inflammation can be described as an overreaction of the immune system, which occurs either because of an autoimmune disease or because the dog ate something that caused it. In humans, IBS is caused by abnormal movement of the muscle lining in the intestine.

Autoimmune Skin Disease

Three typical autoimmune skin diseases of dogs are pemphigus, discoid lupus erythematosus, and Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada-like syndrome. Fortunately, all of them are rare.

Pemphigus usually results in scaly skin, pus-filled sores, or scabs. Blisters might rupture quickly. In some cases, the signs are confined to the feet and head of the dog before they spread out elsewhere. One of the more common forms is pemphigus vulgaris, which affects the mouth, anus, nose, prepuce, and vagina.

Discoid lupus erythematosus is related to its systemic counterpart, but the difference in this situation is that it only affects the face and nose. The dog might have scaly skin or scabby sores around the nose, for example. Since ultraviolet light can make scarring worse, it’s highly recommended that the dog is sheltered from direct sunlight or protected with sunscreen.

Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada-like syndrome is very rare. It causes a loss of pigmentation, and it is typically associated with eye disease. The dog’s nose, eyelids, lips, anus, and footpads turn from black to pink and then to white, and the eyes can suffer from severe infection. When left untreated, this can lead to blindness.


We’ve already noted that in some cases, chemotherapy, along with steroids, can be used to make the symptoms of autoimmune disease milder. However, you should also have a talk with your veterinarian about alternative solutions.

There are some types of somewhat unconventional therapies that can be used, as well, and they are hydrotherapy (especially in dogs with polyarthritis), acupuncture, massage, as well as switching to a diet consisting of unprocessed food.

Supplements can be useful, as well, such as vitamin E, Omega-3, Selenium, and Vitamin C. If your dog suffers from IBD, a probiotic could prove to be useful in partly regulating his digestion. Managing pain can be done with CBD, so keep that in mind.

What Breeds Are More Predisposed to Autoimmune Disease?

Many studies have found that the breeds noted below are more exposed to developing autoimmune disease, whether from medications, vaccine reactions, or due to genetic factors.

Final thoughts

Autoimmune disease can be quite hard on your pet and yourself, as a pet parent. However, most of them can be managed to some extent so that your canine companion gets to enjoy a high quality of life.

If you are suspecting that your dog is suffering from an autoimmune disease or if you’ve noticed a number of the clinical signs that we’ve described in this article, get in touch with your vet as soon as possible. Remember, treatment is very effective when the condition is diagnosed quickly.



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