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Autoimmune Disease in Dogs

What Is Autoimmune Disease in Dogs?

Autoimmune disease in dogs manifests when the immune system, designed to defend against external threats, erroneously attacks the body’s own proteins and cells instead. This misguided immune response generates immune complexes that can inflict damage on tissues and organs, resulting in a variety of symptoms. Although not usually an urgent emergency, if left untreated, autoimmune diseases in dogs can lead to severe consequences that may prove fatal.


Different types of autoimmune diseases can affect various parts of a dog’s body. Some prevalent types include:

  • Pemphigus foliaceus: Attacks skin cells, leading to cracks, pustules, scaling, and infections.
  • Pemphigus erythematosus: Affects facial skin, especially in certain breeds like German Shepherds, Collies, and Shetland Sheepdogs.
  • Pemphigus vulgaris: Uncommon yet severe, causing skin lesions such as erosions and vesicles on the lips, nose, nailbeds, and other skin areas.
  • Bullous pemphigoid: Separates the top and middle layers of the skin.
  • Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE): Affects multiple systems, causing symptoms like lameness, skin lesions, anemia, kidney failure, and seizures.
  • Discoid Lupus Erythematosus (DLE): A milder form targeting the nose and facial skin.
  • Myasthenia gravis: Weakens neuromuscular junctions, resulting in muscle weakness, difficulty eating or swallowing, and limb weakness exacerbated by exercise.
  • Granulomatous Meningoencephalitis (GME): Inflammation impacting the brain and spinal cord’s blood vessels, leading to seizures, blindness, circling, and abnormal gait.
  • Masticatory myositis: Affects chewing muscles, causing pain, swollen muscles, reluctance to eat, swallowing difficulties, and weight loss.
  • Glomerulonephritis: Affects kidney function, with symptoms including increased thirst and urination, muscle wasting, lack of appetite, and limb and abdominal swelling.
  • Polyarthritis: Triggers joint inflammation, resulting in lameness and arthritis.
  • Uveodermatologic syndrome (Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada-like Syndrome): Targets melanin pigment and often causes blindness, particularly in breeds like Akita, Old English Sheepdog, Golden Retriever, Husky, and Irish Setter.
  • Keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS): Known as “dry eye,” occurring more frequently in breeds like Shih Tzus, Cocker Spaniels, Boston Terriers, and Pekingese.
  • Pannus (chronic immune-mediated superficial keratitis): Damages the cornea progressively, leading to blindness.
  • Immune-Mediated Thrombocytopenia (ITP): Affects platelets, causing extensive bruising and potential hemorrhage.
  • Immune-Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA): Impairs red blood cells, resulting in weakness, pale gums, difficulty breathing, and collapse.

Although IMHA, ITP, and pemphigus foliaceus are more common, autoimmune diseases overall are rare in dogs.


Dogs afflicted with autoimmune disease exhibit symptoms linked to the organs or cellular functions targeted by the immune system. These symptoms may appear intermittently, worsening gradually, or emerge suddenly. While not exhaustive, common symptoms depending on the immune system’s focus may include:

  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Presence of blood in the urine or stool
  • Bruising and small hemorrhages on the gums or skin (petechiae)
  • Collapsing episodes
  • Reduced appetite
  • Skin and nose depigmentation
  • Breathing difficulties or an elevated respiratory rate
  • Challenges with eating
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Skin redness (erythema)
  • Fever
  • Hair loss
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Kidney malfunction
  • Limping
  • Lethargy
  • Formation of mouth ulcers and foul breath
  • Muscle wasting
  • Pale gums
  • Pain or stiffness in muscles and joints
  • Skin scaling, redness, crusting, and ulcerations
  • Seizures
  • Sneezing, sometimes with blood (epistaxis)
  • Limb or abdominal swelling
  • Vomiting


Autoimmune diseases can impact any dog breed, yet they are often noted more in unspayed females. Factors contributing to their occurrence include genetics, with purebred dogs exhibiting a higher predisposition, as well as cancer or environmental influences such as UV light exposure, infections, medications, or other medical treatments. Furthermore, dogs diagnosed with one autoimmune disease have an increased likelihood of developing other immune-mediated conditions.


Diagnosing autoimmune diseases in dogs presents a challenge. Typically, veterinarians employ a process of exclusion, eliminating other potential causes until the true underlying issue remains unidentified. They often rely on blood work, urine tests, and other screenings to detect possible abnormalities. In certain situations, a biopsy or advanced imaging like a CT scan or MRI might be required. Although individual tests may not offer absolute confirmation, when assessed alongside the symptoms, they provide enough information to make a diagnosis related to immune-mediated conditions.


Autoimmune diseases result from an excessively reactive and inappropriate immune system, necessitating treatment to suppress immune activity. Immunosuppressants, a class of prescription medications, are commonly utilized for this purpose. Steroids, particularly at high doses, stand as the most frequently prescribed and effective drugs, despite their adverse side effects. To mitigate or avoid these side effects, alternative immunosuppressive medications may be employed alongside steroids. Given that specific drug combinations demonstrate varying efficacy for different conditions and individuals, it’s essential to collaborate with a veterinarian to determine the most suitable therapy options for your dog.

Many dogs afflicted by autoimmune diseases endure pain, discomfort, and a diminished quality of life. Consequently, veterinarians often prescribe pain medications to alleviate suffering. Secondary infections frequently accompany autoimmune disease in dogs, necessitating antibiotic treatment. Furthermore, topical therapies like ointments, shampoos, or conditioners are commonly recommended alongside oral medications to target localized lesions effectively and reduce the required oral medication dosage.

While most affected dogs do not require dietary changes or supplements, those with chronic kidney issues or glomerulonephritis may benefit from specialized diets like Royal Canin Renal. Dogs suffering from IMHA or ITP might need supplementation with iron or vitamins. In acute hospital settings, dogs may require:

  • Blood transfusions
  • Intravenous (IV) fluids
  • Feeding tubes
  • Medication to forestall seizures
  • Anticoagulants to deter blood clots
  • Anti-nausea and antiemetic medications to prevent vomiting
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Therapeutic abdominocentesis, involving draining fluid from the abdomen
  • Thoracocentesis, involving draining fluid from the body.

Living and Management

The prognosis for autoimmune diseases varies significantly. For instance, dogs with DLE typically experience improvement within eight to twelve weeks. However, those with myasthenia gravis have approximately a % chance of improving, entering remission, or not surviving. Complications arising from the disease and its treatment can necessitate humane euthanasia for many dogs.

While autoimmune diseases cannot be cured, they can be effectively managed with lifelong medications. Significant improvement may take several months to manifest. Once symptoms have subsided, your veterinarian might suggest gradually reducing drug therapy to the lowest effective dose to manage symptoms while minimizing side effects. Although relapses are possible, tapering off medications benefits your dog in the long term.

Regular follow-up appointments and monitoring are crucial to prevent relapses and evaluate drug side effects. Always adhere to your vet’s recommendations and consult them before discontinuing or adjusting medication doses.


Regrettably, most autoimmune diseases cannot be prevented, but an early diagnosis followed by immediate treatment can be life-saving. It’s crucial to have your dog examined by their veterinarian at the first sign of any problem. Additionally, ensure you adhere to your vet’s recommendations for follow-up examinations to minimize the risk of relapses.

Moreover, it’s important to ensure that all veterinary providers are informed about your dog’s condition and the medications they are currently taking. Certain medications and vaccines have the potential to worsen the condition or trigger a recurrence of the disease.

Since immune system suppression can heighten the risk of other infections such as urinary tract infections, regular screening and monitoring for potential infections are vital for your dog’s long-term well-being.

Furthermore, UV light exposure can exacerbate certain diseases, so it’s advisable to limit your dog’s sun exposure by scheduling walks during the early morning or late evening. When necessary, use a pet-approved sunscreen on the bridge of the nose and any non-haired skin areas.

Autoimmune Disease in Dogs FAQs

What is the life expectancy of a dog with autoimmune disease?

The life expectancy of a dog with autoimmune disease varies depending on factors such as disease remission, recurrence, and underlying co-morbidities. In cases where dogs exhibit extensive clinical signs, multi-organ involvement, poor quality of life, unresponsiveness to treatment, or suffer from treatment side effects, humane euthanasia may be considered.

What is the most common autoimmune disease in dogs?

One of the most common autoimmune diseases in dogs is immune-mediated thrombocytopenia (ITP). This condition occurs when the immune system targets the body’s platelets, leading to widespread hemorrhage and bruising.

What can trigger autoimmune disease in dogs?

Autoimmune diseases in dogs often occur without a known cause. However, several factors commonly underlie immune-mediated diseases, including genetics, infection, cancer, drugs, and environmental influences.

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