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Autoimmune Diseases in Dogs


Autoimmune disease (AI) covers a wide variety of disorders in dogs that affect the immune system. A dog's immune system is a network of tissue cells, white blood cells, antibodies, and other defences in the body that fight off infections and foreign substances, including bacteria and viruses. 

Canine autoimmune diseases cause the immune system to attack the body's own cells and tissue. Usually, the body is very good at recognising it self from non-self. Self is every tissue in the body that ought to be there - glands keeping your eyes moist, your skin, hair, your lungs, your toenails. Non-self could be a splinter in your finger, a common cold virus you just picked up or a harmful bacteria in your gut. It's essential to know the difference between the two - self you must not attack because your own tissues are vital for health, for life. Non-self is a potential threat and must be neutralised or destroyed. 

Autoimmune disease is where the body becomes confused and starts attacking either one specific tissue or types of tissue. An example of the former is Keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS or Dry Eye). This is where the immune system attacks very specifically the lachrymal (tear) glands that keep the cornea covered with a tear film. 

Generalised autoimmune diseases are described below. Perhaps the most simple to understand is autoimmune polyarthritis where the immune system mistakenly attacks the cartilage in any, and sometimes, in every joint. 

Causes of Autoimmune Diseases in Dogs 

  • Genetic
  • Infections - bacterial/viral
  • Vaccination, e.g. Auto Immune haemolytic anaemia
  • Cancers
  • Microbiome dysfunction - intestinal microorganisms. Intestinal microbiome affects the immune system and the entire spectrum of physiological proceses.
  • Environmental pollutants play a role. e.g. flea and tick drugs, environmental toxins.
  • Ultraviolet (UV) exposure is thought to be a predisposing or "triggering" cause of autoimmune skin diseases in some dogs.
  • Certain drugs have also been reported as potential triggers for pemphigus foliaceus, a common form of autoimmune skin disease in dogs and cats.
  • Toxins are often a culprit in systemic inflammation. Our bodies must rid ourselves of these toxins to function healthily. However, with repeated or extreme exposure, this can leave our bodies fighting to eradicate the toxins for extended periods. This can result in systemic inflammation and can trigger or exacerbate autoimmune disorders. Examples of toxins that can increase inflammation include cigarette smoke, pesticides, and mercury, over exposure to chemicals such as cleaning products.
  • Identify & heal underlying infections. Many dogs experiencing autoimmune disease may have underlying infections causing a runaway autoimmune response. Examples of this may include sinus infection, yeast infection, viruses or bacterial infections, etc. Look for hidden allergens or sensitivities. In many cases, dogs or cats with autoimmune disease may have sensitivities or allergies to food or may have diets high in naturally inflammatory foods.
  • Leaky Gut Syndrome. A leaky gut can also contribute to autoimmune disease. Take an holistic approach to healing a leaky gut, including identifying and eliminating foods contributing to the disorder, reducing stress or NSAID use, improving sleep, and improving gut flora can help to improve inflammation and autoimmune diseases.
  • Reduce Stress. Stress is a common cause of systemic inflammation. Your dog needs plenty of exercise, to avoid continual loud noises, be aware of possible pet to pet stresses and dogs need plenty of sleep.
  • Conventional drugs also act as autoimmune suppressants such as Steroids, Azathioprine, Cyclophosphamide and Ciclosporin.

Autoimmune Diseases in Dogs. Types, Symptoms and Treatments.

An autoimmune disorder can be life-threatening to dogs depending on which organ or tissue the immune system rejects. There are many types of autoimmune diseases in dogs with various symptoms. 

Here are some of the types of autoimmune diseases that affect dogs, the signs to watch out for, and the methods of treatment you might expect your vet to prescribe.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) is a rare autoimmune disease that can be hereditary in dogs.Certain breeds are more predisposed to the condition. These include Afghan Hounds, Beagles, Collies, German Shepherds, Irish Setters, Old English Sheepdogs, Poodles, and Shetland Sheepdogs.

Typically symptoms appear around age six, but can show up at any age, and often flare up or go into remission for periods. SLE can affect the skin, heart, lungs, kidneys, joints, blood, and nervous system as antibodies in the blood attack the body's own cells and tissue. Usually, more than one organ will be affected.

Symptoms depend on where the disease is localised, but can include the following:

  • Lameness or pain in one or more joints and muscles
  • Increased drinking or urination
  • Ulcers on the face or feet
  • Lesions, scars, ulceration, or crusting on the skin
  • Alopecia (hair loss)
  • Loss of pigment in the nose
  • Fever
  • Anaemia
  • Thyroid problems
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Kidney infections
  • Spleen, liver, or kidney enlargement

The causes of SLE are unknown, but there is a hereditary component for some dogs, and exposure to ultraviolet light makes the condition worse. Hospitalisation may be necessary for severe cases until the disease can be managed. 

At home, rest is advised for dogs with joint pain, and exposure to sunlight must be limited. Change your dog's diet to be more kidney-friendly can help. Introduce B vitamins, lighter meats, low phosphate meats such as chicken, duck, rabbit, turkey and lots of Omega 3.

Your vet may also prescribe immunosuppressive drugs or steroids to reduce inflammation but d
ogs or cats with SLE should not be vaccinated.

Autoimmune hemolytic anaemia (AIHA)

Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia (AIHA) happens when the dog's immune system attacks the body's red blood cells. Red blood cells are responsible for bringing oxygen from the lungs to all tissue of the body. With AIHA, the red blood cells are destroyed or damaged faster than they can be replaced.

Symptoms include the following:

  • Weakness or lethargy
  • Weight loss or anorexia
  • Increased heart rate and breathing
  • Pale mucous membranes on the gums and eyes
  • Fever
  • Jaundice
  • Discolouration of the eyes, gums, and skin
  • Collapse, in severe cases

The causes of the disease are unknown, but it appears more frequently in middle-aged female dogs, and certain breeds like Cocker Spaniels and Poodles are more predisposed, though any dog could develop AIHA. Vaccinations can cause AIHA in some dogs. 

Corticosteroids and immunosuppressive drugs are usually prescribed to keep the condition under control. In cases where medications are not effective, the spleen may be removed. The spleen is responsible for destroying red blood cells that the body deems damaged or no longer useful. Dogs can live a healthy life without a spleen and in rare cases, a blood transfusion may be used.

Immune-mediated thrombocytopenia (ITP)

Immune-Mediated Thrombocytopenia (ITP) happens when the immune system attacks thrombocytes, or 'platelets', the cells responsible for forming blood clots. 

Dogs with this condition will not likely experience a collapse or crisis as they may with AIHA. Still, it can be a severe condition if there is any bleeding.

Here are some of the symptoms you may notice with ITP:

  • Bruising
  • Excessive bleeding after an injury or surgery
  • Excessive bleeding during menstruation
  • Blood in the urine or stool

Treatment for ITP in dogs is similar to therapy for AIHA. A vet will administer corticosteroids and immunosuppressive drugs. They may remove the spleen, as well. A blood or plasma transfusion may also be helpful. 

In female dogs an ovariohysterectomy may be performed to decrease the risk of uterine haemorrhaging.

Autoimmune diseases of the skin

Autoimmune Skin Diseases in dogs are rare and various. They can be challenging to diagnose, and each comes with its own set of symptoms.

Here are several types of autoimmune diseases of the skin and the signs you should look out for:

  • Pemphigus comes in many forms but commonly results in scaly skin, scabs, or pus-filled sores. Blisters that rupture quickly can also appear. In some types, these symptoms can sometimes stay confined to the head and feet before spreading elsewhere. The most severe form is pemphigus vulgaris in which ulcers can appear at the mouth, anus, prepuce, nose, and vagina.

  • Discoid lupus erythematosus is likely related to SLE but only affects the face and nose. There may be loss of pigment, scaly skin, or scabby sores around the nose. Ultraviolet light makes nasal scarring worse. Sunscreen and shelter from sunlight are recommended.

  • Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada-like syndrome is extremely rare and causes a loss of pigmentation along with eye disease. The nose, lips, eyelids, footpads, and anus turn from black to pink or white, and the eyes become severely infected. Treating it early can prevent blindness.

With autoimmune skin diseases, treatment usually involves the use of topical corticosteroids or low to medium doses of prednisone. 

Minor cases can require very little treatment, while more severe cases necessitate frequent veterinary visits with strict instructions for application of medication.

Immune-mediated polyarthritis

Immune-Mediated Polyarthritis can sometimes be seen with SLE or can exist on its own. It covers several specific diseases, but the symptoms in dogs are mostly the same.

Symptoms include the following:

  • High fever
  • Joint pain or swelling
  • Lameness that shifts from leg to leg
  • Enlarged lymph nodes

In about half of the cases of immune-mediated polyarthritis, dogs go into remission after being treated with corticosteroids. Cytoxan or Imuran are drugs that are given in the rest of the cases and are followed up with steroids.

Usually, this condition is quite manageable with treatment, and the outlook for affected dogs is good. 

Holistic Treatments for Autoimmune Diseases 

Other types of treatment for immune diseases in dogs in addition to medication, is to consider an holistic approach. This can be helpful when treating autoimmune disorders in dogs. You should discuss these additional treatments with your vet to make sure they are safe for your dog and won't interfere with other medications. 

Treatment depends on the kind of autoimmune disorder, but some of the basic holistic approaches you can implement to help your dog are:

  • A good high quality raw diet - Switch your dog's diet from processed foods such as kibble that have been treated with chemicals or preservatives over to a raw food diet as it helps reduce inflammation in your pet's body, is more natural for your dog's digestive system and allows good bacteria to grow and flourish in the gut.
  • Avoid feeding your cat or dog proteins or foods that disagree with their digestive system.
  • Introduce a variety of healthy food into your pet's diet such as raw fruit and raw vegetables.
  • Introduce seasonal feeding into your pet's diet as it helps keep the body in line with the seasons to help naturally fight bacteria and viruses. 
  • Introduce herbs that help support your dog's lymphatic system and autoimmune system.
  • Ensure they have a good supply of quality minerals and vitamins.
  • Include supplements such as turmeric, a known anti-inflammatory, or Omega-3, vitamin E, Selenium, and Vitamin C. 
  • Include a good prebiotic and probiotic supplement in their diet. This can be achieved with things like fermented foods and kefir or a probiotic such as Fidospore may also be helpful.
  • Provide your pet with good sources of omega 3 such as fish or flax oil.
  • Ensure they have access to good CoEnzyme Q10 as it helps generate energy in the cells. It should be naturally produced in the body but it can be impacted by things like diet, especially nutritional deficiency, age, disease, side effects of treatments. CoQ10 is stored within the mitochondria which are directly responsible for producing energy in the cells and protecting the cells from damage, disease and viruses.
  • Identify and eliminate potential toxins such as chemicals for cleaning, treatments on lawns, dog toys that are know to be high in toxins, metal water bowls that can leach chemical etc.
  • Massages by a trained professional who is aware of your dog's condition.
  • Remove stress from your dog's environment, including anything that may cause anxiety.
  • Hydrotherapy, which is especially beneficial for dogs who may have arthritis symptoms.
  • Acupuncture from a trained and licensed practitioner.

Autoimmune disease is not common but can cause profound illness if not treated early. There is a lot you can do holistically for your pet but sometimes these diseases may need powerful drugs. 

Autoimmune diseases are a wake-up call for us all, to improve every aspect of our health as 'prevention is better than cure'. 

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Friday, March 31 2023

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