Autoimmune Diseases in Dogs – Ask the Vet

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Autoimmune diseases in dogs represent a considerable challenge as they are often difficult to diagnose and treat.

This article will detail all the autoimmune diseases that can affect your furry friend. We’ll also discuss the new treatments available and everything you need to know to improve your pet’s quality of life.

So, what is autoimmune disease in dogs?

Portrait of a brown dog

What are Autoimmune Disorders in Dogs?

Although we all have a vague idea of what the immune system is and what it is for, it is common not to understand how it works. Lymph nodes throughout the body contain the cells of the immune system. They are also in the spleen, thymus, lungs, intestines, and all body organs. These cells patrol the body, circulating in the bloodstream.

The immune system defends the body, allowing it to maintain an internal balance against external aggressions (pathogens, pollutants, or radiation) or internal (e.g., cancer cells).

So, what is autoimmune disease in dogs? It is when the animal’s organism attacks its tissues. The immune system is unable to recognize the body’s normal healthy cells. It tries to destroy them as it considers them a threat and mounts an immune response against its cells and tissues.

The cause of this “error” is still not well understood. Dog autoimmune diseases can affect only one system or many body systems.

Can Autoimmune Disease Kill a Dog?

Autoimmune diseases in dogs are severe and can cause the death of your pet if not diagnosed in the early stages.

Can Autoimmune Disease in Dogs Be Cured?

Autoimmune diseases in dogs usually have no definitive cure. We try to control them with the available treatments. Yet, we must remember that relapses into severe acute conditions may occur.

The Causes of Canine Autoimmune Diseases and Disorders

Currently, science cannot explain what causes these diseases. But, some factors may contribute to the appearance of these pathologies:

  • Genetics. This type of disease is higher in some dog breeds—for example, Golden Retrievers, Poodles, German Shepherds, Collies, and Great Danes.
  • Leaky gut syndrome. The dog’s intestinal lining usually has “tight junctions” that prevent the entry of foreign substances. Improper diet, toxins, overuse of drugs (antibiotics), chronic infections, and stress can lead to intestinal inflammation and leakage. As a result, the intestinal wall becomes more permeable and allows toxins, allergens, bacteria, and yeasts to enter the bloodstream.
  • Over-vaccination of our pets. There are suspicions that vaccine adjuvants are responsible for possible autoimmune reactions.
  • Ultraviolet (UV) radiation. May predispose dogs to autoimmune skin diseases.

What is the Most Common Autoimmune Disease in Dogs?

Addison’s Disease

Also called hypoadrenocorticism, it is an endocrine disorder. It occurs when the immune system attacks and destroys the adrenal cortex, reducing steroid production.

Symptoms are non-specific and include fatigue, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, anorexia, weight loss, and alterations in blood values.

Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia

It occurs when the dog’s immune system attacks its red blood cells. The disease tends to occur in adult female dogs of any breed. Yet, there is some genetic predisposition in Cocker Spaniels.

Symptoms are weakness or lethargy, weight loss, anorexia, rapid heart rate and respiration, fever, jaundice, fainting, and pale mucous membranes.

Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes mellitus is an endocrine autoimmune disease. It occurs when the immune system destroys the beta cells of the pancreas, losing their ability to secrete insulin.

Clinical signs are polyuria (frequent urination), polydipsia (excessive water intake), and polyphagia (increased appetite).

Diabetes

Autoimmune Encephalitis

It is an immune system reaction against the brain’s neurons. Predisposed breeds are small, especially toy breeds.

Clinical signs are disorientation, tremors, weakness, and seizures.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

It occurs when the pet’s immune system overreacts to the viruses or bacteria responsible for gastroenteritis. The individual’s immune system produces chronic inflammation of the stomach’s mucosa, small intestine, and large intestine.

The symptoms are diarrhea, vomiting, anorexia, and weight loss.

Hypothyroidism

It is an endocrine disease caused by autoimmune thyroiditis. It means that the dog’s immune system is “unaware” of the thyroid cells and generates antibodies to destroy them. As a result, the thyroid gland does not create enough thyroid hormones. 

The symptoms correspond to a decrease in metabolism, weight gain, intolerance to colds, lethargy, skin problems (hair loss, color and quality changes, and predisposition to skin infections), abnormalities in the reproductive system, decreased heart rate, and reduced mental function.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

It is a rare autoimmune disease in dogs. Antibodies attack the skin, heart, lungs, kidneys, joints, some components of the blood, and the nervous system. This disease tends to occur more in females and adult animals over six years of age.

Symptoms may include fever, limping and pain in joints and muscles, kidney failure, blood disorders (anemia, thrombocytopenia, jaundice), skin problems (photosensitization, crusting and ulcers on the nose, depigmentation of mucocutaneous junctions).

Myasthenia Gravis

This disease occurs when antibodies from the immune system attack the neurotransmitters that control your dog’s muscle function.

Clinical signs are ataxia, muscle weakness, exercise intolerance, and regurgitation of food.

Dry Keratoconjunctivitis (Dry Eye)

The hyposecretion of tears by the lacrimal glands of one or both eyes is due to an autoimmune reaction that destroys the lacrimal gland.

The symptoms are red eye, purulent conjunctivitis, ulcers, corneal opacity, pain, and persistent blepharospasm.

Pemphigus

The Pemphigus complex is a group of autoimmune diseases where antibodies attack skin cells. Pemphigus in dogs is the most common autoimmune skin disease.

The symptoms are pustular and crusted lesions in the facial region and plantar pads, fever, anorexia, and decay.

Immune-Mediated Polyarthritis

It occurs when antibodies attack components of the dog’s joints. It may affect several joints, and signs may be intermittent or recurrent.

Clinical signs include fever, anorexia, apathy joint pain, stiffness, difficulty getting up, lameness, and swollen, warm, and painful joints.

Immune-Mediated Thrombocytopenia

It is a bleeding disorder in which the immune system attacks platelets necessary for normal blood clotting. It is more common in middle-aged females.

Symptoms include

  • Epistaxis (nose bleeds),
  • Melena (hemorrhagic stools),
  • Hematuria (blood in urine),
  • Petechiae, ecchymosis, and cutaneous hematomas,
  • increased heart and respiratory rate, hypotension, and pale mucous membranes.

Diagnosing Canine Autoimmune Diseases

Diagnosis presents several difficulties. Symptoms can vary and often overlap with those of other diseases. Besides, test results can be inconsistent or misleading, further complicating diagnosis.

Diagnosis requires integrating the anamnesis, clinical history, physical findings, and test results. Depending on the case, it may need

  • Blood tests (as in hematologic and endocrine cases),
  • Urinalysis (diabetes, Addison’s, and hematologic cases),
  • Coproparasitological tests (in cases with digestive symptoms),
  • Biopsies (digestive cases, skin diseases, and myasthenia gravis),
  • Joint puncture for synovial fluid sampling in cases of polyarthritis,
  • Cerebrospinal fluid analysis and magnetic resonance imaging in cases of autoimmune encephalitis,
  • Schirmer’s test in cases of dry eye (measures the amount of tears produced by the eyes).

Autoimmune Disease in Dogs – Treatment

In the case of endocrine diseases, such as Addison’s disease, diabetes, and hypothyroidism, treatment consists of replacing the hormone the body is not producing. 

Addison’s Disease

A mineralocorticoid injection once a month is the treatment for Addison’s disease. 

Diabetes

In the case of diabetes, the patient must receive daily injected insulin. 

Hypothyroidism

For hypothyroidism, the treatment is daily oral intake of thyroid hormones.

Hypothyroidism

Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca

Treatment of keratoconjunctivitis sicca involves the stimulation of tear secretion to allow the cornea to repair and prevent the accumulation of mucous secretions or ulcer formation. Drops of immunomodulatory agents (Cyclosporine A) administered for life is the choice treatment. To avoid corneal dryness, use artificial tears and, if necessary, antibiotic eye drops to fight infections or corneal ulcers.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

For inflammatory bowel disease in dogs, it is advisable to incorporate an easy-to-digest diet, helping it to have better digestion. Novel or hydrolyzed protein and high-fiber formulas are different options to help the gastrointestinal tract function.

Some nutritional supplements, such as prebiotic fibers and probiotic bacteria, can help control the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease. Also, fatty acids such as omega-3 or fish oil have potent anti-inflammatory properties.

Other Canine Immune-Related Diseases

In all the other autoimmune diseases mentioned, there is no specific treatment. The pet receives medication to suppress its immune system and prevent it from attacking the body’s cells. 

This immunosuppressive therapy relies on administering oral steroids, alone or in combination with immunosuppressive agents, like azathioprine, chlorambucil, cyclosporine, and cyclophosphamide. 

The use of immunosuppressants has an adjuvant effect, intending to reduce the dose of corticosteroids necessary for chronic control of the disease.

Dogs follow immunosuppressive treatment for four to six months in most immune-mediated diseases. In some severe cases, this treatment lasts a lifetime.

Although these immunosuppressive drugs help treat the disease, they pose risks. Suppressing the immune system will increase the dog’s risk of contracting other superficial infections, such as skin or urinary tract infections.

Novel techniques for autoimmune disease in dog treatment, still little used in veterinary medicine, are

  • The therapeutic plasma exchange (TPE) method. This treatment extracts the patient’s blood and filters it to remove the antibodies that do so much harm.
  • Fecal microbiota transplantation. These are intestinal restoration supplements for dogs. They are capsules containing selected fecal material from healthy donor dogs.

What is the Best Food for Canine Autoimmune Diseases?

This aspect plays a vital role in the animal’s health, thus, in the general immunological system. 

Beyond the fact that the animal is at its ideal weight, a balanced diet is necessary. But, nowadays, we are not only discussing covering the dog’s basic nutritional requirements with food. 

A new concept is appearing: immunomodulating diets. These are the best diets for canine autoimmune disease because they consist of balanced diets that include nutrients capable of regulating the immune system. 

These immunomodulatory nutrients include beta-glucans, prebiotics, probiotics, omega-3, and vitamins.

B-Glucans

Β-glucans are polysaccharides found in the cell walls of many species of fungi. Their benefits are decreasing the inflammatory process and improving the health of the intestinal mucosa.

Prebiotics

Prebiotics are insoluble, non-digestible fibers that stimulate beneficial bacterial fermentation in the colon.

Probiotics

Probiotics are live microorganisms that affect the intestinal microbiota, such as improving stool consistency and odor, regulating the immune system, balancing the intestinal microbiota, and helping to treat diarrhea, among others.

Omega 3

Within the omega-3 family, the fatty acids with immunological action are eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA), playing essential roles in inflammation and immune modulation.

Omega 3

Vitamins

Vitamin A stimulates the individual’s immune system. Vitamin C has antioxidant, anticarcinogenic, and immunomodulatory functions in the body.

Dog food brands such as Full Trust, Zoofeed, and Biofeed are not only balanced in their ingredients but also are immunomodulatory diets because they contain all the specific nutrients to stimulate the dog’s immune system. All dogs can use these diets as an excellent nutritional base to maintain a stable immune system.

Autoimmune Disorders in Dogs – Life Expectancy

It is important to know that while some autoimmune diseases remit without relapsing, others can last a lifetime.

The life expectancy of autoimmune diseases in dogs depends on the severity, the individual’s immune system, a proper diagnosis, early detection, and the possibility of the owners realizing the appropriate treatment.

Can Autoimmune Diseases in Canines Be Prevented?

To help prevent the development of canine autoimmune diseases, we recommend the following:

  • Use balanced and immunomodulatory diets or add nutritional supplements
  • Curcuma and ginger are natural supplements that reduce intestinal inflammation.
  • Limit your dog’s exposure to chemicals and toxins. 
  • Reduce medications, and avoid pesticides and chemicals in your home and garden.
  • Exercise with your dog. Physical activity stimulates blood circulation and deep breathing, which support the immune system.
  • Manage your dog’s stress level. Give it plenty of outings and opportunities to relax in nature.

The Final Say

A lot is unknown about the causes of autoimmune disorders in dogs, so protecting your canine from anything that can harm it is difficult. Instead, focus on taking care of the things you can control to reduce the risks of developing an autoimmune disease.

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AUTHOR

Diana is the founder of two thriving companies, Maskoketos in Mexico, specializing in the medical care of dogs and cats, and Faunavets in Argentina, dedicated to the welfare of non-traditional animals. Her expertise extends far beyond the realm of domestic pets, encompassing a wide variety of creatures, from the smallest rabbits to majestic elephants. Diana's passion for marine life led her to work with dolphins, manatees, sharks, and manta rays in Mexico. Her commitment and enthusiasm for the well-being of animals are at the core of her work, and she is dedicated to improving animal welfare in every way possible.