Autoimmune Disease in Dogs

Autoimmune disease in dogs occurs at any age and is uncommon. It happens when the entire body of the dog develops and deposits high antigen-antibody complexes, targeting cells, organs and tissues as they would usually target diseases.

Systemic autoimmune disease in dogs refers to a variety of autoimmune diseases in which a dog’s immune system, starts to battle itself and its defensive antibodies.

Types of systemic autoimmune disease in dogs and their symptoms

Symptoms can differ widely, depending on the position of the immune complexes. Symptoms common to all forms include:

  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia
  • Fever

Additional signs are unique to such forms and are characterized by the affected bodily system.

Hypoadrenocorticism (Addison’s disease)

It happens when antibodies attack the adrenal gland of a dog. Symptoms include:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Depression
  • The loss of weight
  • Collapse and shock
  • Kidney failure
  • Lack of appetite
  • Diarrhoea
  • Pressure in the abdomen
  • Increased development of thirst and urine

Hemolytic anaemia

It happens when antibodies destroy the red blood cells of a dog. Symptoms include:

  • Anaemia
  • Free haemoglobin in blood and urine
  • Jaundice
  • Lethargy
  • Blue, blistered, swollen, ulcerated or crusted extremities
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Swollen spleen

Systemic lupus erythematous (Lupus)

It is a multiple organ autoimmune disease that occurs in a dog’s body when antibodies invade cells, organs and tissues. Symptoms may vary as per the progression of the disease and the infected locations. Symptoms include:

  • Arthritis in multiple joints
  • Loss of hair
  • Dandruff
  • Ulceration of skin and crusting of limbs
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Appetite Loss
  • Anaemia
  • The loss of weight


It happens when a dog’s platelets are targeted by antibodies, inhibiting the blood’s ability to clot properly. It can occur in ‘Systemic lupus erythematosus’ as a secondary disorder. Symptoms include:

  • External bleeding and haemorrhages
  • Nosebleeds

Myasthenia gravis

It happens when antibodies in your dog’s muscles invade acetylcholine receptors. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that regulates muscle function.

Symptoms include:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Tiredness
  • Disinterest in workouts
  • Swallowing trouble
  • Meat regurgitation

Rheumatoid arthritis

This happens when antibodies target immunoglobulin G, which controls blood circulation in the dog’s body. Symptoms include:

  • Lameness
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Lack of appetite
  • Swollen joints
  • Joint movement is limited or nonexistent
  • Dislocated joints
  • A snapping, cracking or grating sound when joints are moved

Lymphocytic thyroiditis

It happens when antibodies attack your dog’s thyroid. Symptoms include:

  • Loss of hair
  • Thinning skin
  • Muscle weakness
  • The slow pace of the heart
  • Constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Dry eye
  • Skin Hyperpigmentation
  • Dandruff
  • Lethargy
  • Obesity
  • Intolerance to the cold
  • Deposits of fat in the corner of the eye

Bullous autoimmune skin disease

It happens when antibodies attack the dog’s skin. The following are subsets and their symptoms:

Pemphigus Vulgaris

  • Ulcers/erosions around orifices that secrete discharge and crust over
  • Depression
  • Lack of appetite

Pemphigus Foliaceus

  • Pustules underneath the skin surface
  • Crusting
  • Dandruff
  • Hair loss
  • Scratching/excessive itchiness
  • Hyperpigmentation, usually black
  • Peeling foot pads
  • Found mostly in the head and nose

Pemphigus Vegetans

  • Pustules
  • Crusting
  • Papilloma formation, which is what feels like small warts
  • Sometimes found in the groin area

Pemphigus Erythematosus

  • Discharge-secreting Sores
  • Crusting
  • Scratching/excessive itchiness
  • Found around the  eyes, ears, and bridge of the nose

Bullous Pemphigoid

  • Ulcers/erosions around orifices that secrete discharge and crust over
  • Depression
  • Lack of appetite
  • Elevated body temperature

Breeds Affected

Autoimmune haemolytic anaemia

Breeds: most commonly found in species such as Cocker Spaniel, Old English Sheepdog, and Poodle

Autoimmune thrombocytopenia

Breeds: most commonly seen in the breed of Poodles

Systemic lupus erythematosus

Breeds: most commonly found in breeds of German Shepherds and Poodles

Rheumatoid arthritis

Breeds: most commonly found in toy breeds

Causes of systemic autoimmune disease in dogs

Systemic autoimmune disease in dogs has no known cause. Ultraviolet light can worsen the condition, but it is not a source.


It is difficult to diagnose systemic autoimmune disease since all dogs do not have the same signs and many signs overlap with other conditions. The veterinarian will conduct a thorough blood panel  to evaluate red and white blood cells to assess whether your dog has a low platelet count, low blood cortisol, and blood chemistry,

The vet assesses a complete blood count to determine whether your dog tests positive for anti-nuclear antibodies, thyroid hormone levels, high plasma potassium levels,  and high calcium concentrations.

These blood metrics can decide whether, and if so, what form of systemic autoimmune disease is present in your dog. For example, a positive test of anti-nuclear antibodies indicates lupus, a low platelet count indicates thrombocytopenia, and a low level of thyroid hormone suggests lymphocytic thyroiditis.

Treatment of  autoimmune disease in dogs

Your dog may require hospitalization depending on the severity of the symptoms. In severe red blood cell destruction cases, the dog would need to be hospitalized to control red blood cell levels. Nevertheless, the disease can be treated on an outpatient procedure in many situations.

Corticosteroids like prednisone are prescribed to minimize inflammation and autoimmune disease. A secondary immunosuppressant, like azathioprine, cyclophosphamide or cyclosporine, will also be added to this.

Types of autoimmune disease in dogs and their treatments:

  • Hypoadrenocorticism:  Includes long-term treatment with mineral corticoids, possibly with fludrocortisone acetate, to re-establish the balance of salt and water.
  • Hemolytic anaemia and thrombocytopenia: A blood transfusion and surgery may or may not be needed to remove the dog’s spleen.
  • Myasthenia gravis: Includes the regular injection of cholinesterase inhibitors, such as pyridostigmine bromide.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: Includes aspirin only when lupus and thrombocytopenia are absent. In addition, cytotoxic drugs (or antineoplastics), which target and attack harmful antibodies, may be administered to your dog. Common cytotoxics include azathioprine and cyclophosphamide. Gold salt treatment, which tends to minimize more inflammation and delay disease progression, can be an alternative strategy.
  • Systemic lupus erythematous (Lupus): Includes cytotoxic medicines, like azathioprine and cyclophosphamide.
  • Lymphocytic thyroiditis: In order to return to normal thyroid functioning, synthetic thyroid hormone replacement therapy is needed.
  • Bullous autoimmune skin disease: Includes azathioprine or cyclophosphamide cytotoxic medications, gold salt therapy and sunlight exposure restriction.


Prognosis of dogs with chronic autoimmune disease varies greatly, with some dogs dying of complications and others living a generally healthy life with treatment. Nevertheless, medication will likely be necessary for your dog’s entire life.

It would help if you regularly watch your dog for signs of adverse effects, and the veterinarian will probably need frequent checkups to ensure the treatment is working effectively.

Over time, the frequency of checkups would possibly decrease. It is essential to provide a cosy, quiet space for recovery when your dog comes home, likely in a cage before your dog is well enough to move around more.

Continue to be mindful of your dog’s exposure to sunshine, restricting dawn and sunset hours for outdoor exercise. Additional precautions will require other complex therapies.

For instance, in the case of kidney problems, the veterinarian would possibly recommend a special diet.

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