Autoimmune disease is when your dog’s body attacks its own cells. Normally the immune system fights off germs, bacteria, and viruses (1). But when your dog’s body can’t tell the difference between good cells and bad cells, its autoantibodies attack all cells.
Autoimmunity can affect your dog’s joints, blood, skin … or whole body.
Symptoms Of Autoimmune Diseases In Dogs
Because your dog can’t tell you what’s bothering him, you need to be able to read his symptoms. Many symptoms are similar among various diseases … and autoimmunity is just one of the possibilities.
Here are things to watch for. Keep in mind that each autoimmune disease also has additional more specific symptoms which you’ll read about under the relevant disease section.
- Lack of energy or weakness, and sometimes collapse
- Loss of weight
- Heavy breathing
- Increased heart rate
- Pale or discolored gums/mucous membranes, eyes or skin
- Jaundice – which shows as the above symptoms plus yellow/orange stool, discolored urine, yellowish eyes
Common Autoimmune Diseases In Dogs
Here are brief descriptions of common autoimmune diseases in dogs.
Most canine hypothyroidism is the result of an autoimmune process known as autoimmune thyroiditis. This is when your dog’s immune system develops antibodies against the cells in his own thyroid gland. As the cells are attacked and destroyed, the remaining cells must work harder to take over. It’s not until the gland is 75% destroyed, and can’t produce enough thyroid hormone, that your dog begins to show symptoms of thyroid issues.
The Merck Veterinary Manual states that 95% of the cases of canine hypothyroidism are because of immune-mediated destruction of the thyroid gland … and not iodine deficiencies. That’s why it’s important to determine the cause before giving iodine or other supplements.
In addition to the more general autoimmune disease signs listed earlier, you may also notice:
- Thickening of the skin
- Obesity and weight gain without increasing food or appetite
- Cold and exercise intolerance
- Mental dullness
There are 2 kinds of lupus
1, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) is rare and can be fatal. Your dog’s immune system attacks the skin, blood, nervous system, and major organs. SLE can be fatal to dogs.
Symptoms vary and can duplicate other diseases. Here are the most common ones:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Lethargy, muscle pain and stiffness
- Sores in the mouth
- Hair loss and skin lesions
- Lameness that shifts between legs
2. Discoid Lupus Erythematosus (DLE) is more common and only affects your dog’s skin. Here are some signs:
- Sores, ulcers or scarring
- Pale skin on the nose
- Bacterial infections
- Itching and scratching
- Redness on the face nose and lips
- Skin that’s flaky or scaly
3. Immune-Mediated Polyarthritis (IMPA)
Immune-mediated polyarthritis appears when the immune system attacks the joints. It causes pain, swelling and affects your dog’s ability to walk. It can exist on its own or alongside SLE … or as a symptom of an autoimmune disease throughout your dog’s body.
This is what you’ll notice in your dog:
- Joint swelling and/or pain
- Lethargy due to discomfort
- Lameness that shifts from leg to leg
- Whining or yelping when moving or being touched
- Enlarged lymph nodes
4. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
When your dog’s immune system overreacts to bacteria in the intestines, it causes inflammation and gastrointestinal symptoms that lead to inflammatory bowel disease. IBD is most often seen once dogs reach middle age, which varies by breed.
Here are symptoms you’ll see:
- Blood in stool
- Bloating and gas
- Gurgling in the abdomen
- Weight loss
- Discomfort in abdomen
- Depression and solitude
- Changes in coat texture
Immune-Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA)
Immune-mediated hemolytic anemia can be a primary disease meaning the cause isn’t readily known. Or it can be a secondary disease when the immune system’s antibodies destroy its own red blood cells. This can happen when there’s an existing condition like cancer, an infection, or the influence of drugs or toxins. Because a major role of red blood cells is to transport oxygen through the body, when there’s anemia, there’s a shortage, all parts of the body are starved for oxygen. A severe loss of red blood cells can be life-threatening.
These are signs of hemolytic anemia in your dog:
- Pale or white gums
- Weakness, lethargy, fatigue
- Depression and desire to sleep
- Lack of energy or interest
- Decreased appetite
- Extremities are cold
- Difficulty breathing and shortness of breath
- Irregular heartbeat
6. Immune-Mediated Thrombocytopenia (IMT)
Like IMHA, immune-mediated thrombocytopenia can appear as a primary or secondary disease. Instead of red blood cells, the immune system destroys its platelets. Platelets help form blood clots to stop bleeding. When large numbers are destroyed, you will probably see pinpoint bleeding in the skin or gums or bleeding from your dog’s nose. This appears in female dogs more than in males.
Here are signs of thrombocytopenia in your dog:
- Bruising of skin or gums
- Blood in urine and stool
- Weakness and lethargy
Type 1 diabetes mellitus (2, 3) is an autoimmune disease. It happens when the pancreas stops making insulin. The cause is when the immune system attacks the pancreas and destroys the insulin-producing cells.
Here are signs of diabetes in your dog:
- Frequent urination – your diabetic dog will drink and pee a lot
- Hunger as your dog’s cells demand glucose
- Weight loss – your dog will burn off tissue to produce glucose, and he’ll lose weight
- Vomiting – especially if your dog has pancreatitis
- Tired, lethargic or weak
This is a disease where antibodies attack your dog’s thyroid that is responsible for controlling the metabolism of the body. When it’s under attack, the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough hormone. That can lead to other diseases.
The symptoms are extensive and can include:
- Muscle fatigue and weakness
- Slow heart rate
- Loss of interest in activity, lethargy
- Hair loss and dandruff
- Thinning skin
- Darker skin pigmentation
- Dry eye
- Cold intolerance
8. Myasthenia Gravis
This condition occurs when antibodies of the immune system attack the neurotransmitters that control your dog’s muscle function.
You’ll notice these signs:
- Muscle weakness
- Lack of muscle control
- Loss of interest in exercise or play
- Difficulty swallowing
- Regurgitating food, not to be confused with vomiting
9. Rheumatoid Arthritis
This is chronic inflammation of the lining of the joints, leading to pain and swelling. It happens when the immune system attacks the immunoglobulin G that regulates the circulatory system.
Here are signs you’ll see:
- Swelling of joints
- Lameness and difficulty walking
- Elevated body temperature
- Limited or restricted joint movement
- Inability to move joints
- Dislocated joints
- A sound of cracking or grating when joints are moved
10. Addison’s Disease (Hypoadrenocorticism)
Addison’s disease and hypoadrenocorticism are one and the same disease. It occurs when your dog’s adrenal glands are attacked by the immune system (5) and can’t produce enough cortisol and aldosterone. These 2 hormones regulate many important bodily functions. Cortisol is a stress hormone that also helps control metabolism, blood pressure and sugar levels. Aldosterone regulates sodium and potassium levels to control blood pressure. Anything that damages the adrenal glands can lead to Addison’s disease.
Common symptoms of Addison’s disease in dogs include:
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Depression and lethargy
- Blood in stool
- Hair loss
- Low body temperature
- Irregular heart rate
- Darkened skin pigment
11. Bullous Autoimmune Skin Diseases
These are autoimmune diseases that attack your dog’s skin, especially the connections between skin cells. There are three causes.
- Endogenous pemphigus can be due to genetic or breed disposition, or an immune system defect.
- Exogenous pemphigus is from an outside influence that sets off the immune system.
- Idiopathic pemphigus has no known cause for the immune system attacking the cellular connections of the skin.
And within those, there are 5 varieties of pemphigus in dogs.
- Pemphigus Vulgaris – This is a rare disease, but very serious. Secreting ulcers form around orifices. They form at any skin level but usually deeper in the skin.
- Pemphigus Foliaceus – This is more superficial with pustules just under the surface of the skin, usually on the head and nose, along with peeling foot pads.
- Pemphigus Vegetans – You’ll see postules and papillomas that look like small warts in the groin area.
- Bullous Pemphigoid – Its ulcers and blisters are similar to those of pemphigus vulgaris but they form deep in the skin. It is less severe.
- Pemphigus Erythematosus – This is usually found around the eyes, ears and bridge of the nose, with secreting sores and crusting.
Common symptoms seen in these conditions are:
- Balding and hair loss
- Skin ulcers
- Open sores or blisters
- Scabbing of the skin
12. Periodontal disease
Periodontal disease is inflammation that affects the teeth-supporting structures of your dog’s mouth. This is the major cause of tooth loss. It occurs when your dog’s immune system attacks its own tissues due to ongoing chronic inflammation. Several studies (4) have concluded that autoimmunity plays a role in periodontal disease.
Causes of Autoimmune Diseases In Dogs
These influences can lead to autoimmune diseases in dogs:
1. Leaky Gut Syndrome
Factors like poor diet, toxins, overuse of pharmaceuticals, and stress can lead to inflammation that causes leaky gut in dogs. Your dog’s gut lining usually has “tight junctions” that prevent foreign substances from getting into the bloodstream. But when leaky gut develops, the gut lining becomes more permeable and allows toxins, allergens, bacteria and yeast into the bloodstream. Leaky gut can lead to many chronic diseases, such as arthritis, allergies, digestive issues, thyroid and other organ disorders. And several studies show that a leaky gut allows environmental factors to enter the body and trigger autoimmune disease (6, 7, 8)
Environmental factors like exposure to chemicals and toxins. 2014 research by Corsini et al found that heavy metals, PCBs, perfluorinated compounds (PFCs or PFOA) can affect antibody production and lead to immunosuppression (9). The study concluded: “Dysregulation(s) of immune system homeostasis can lead to adverse changes in immune functions, increasing the susceptibility to infections and cancer, as well as favoring the development of autoimmune diseases.”
In other words, environmental toxins can cause dysfunction that leads to improper cell destruction and autoimmune diseases.
3. Other Possible Factors
There’s conflicting research about whether there’s a link between vaccines and autoimmune disease in dogs.
In a 2017 paper, Laurel Gershwin DVM at UC Davis (10) reviewed many different adverse effects of vaccination in dogs, including the potential for autoimmune disease.
Gershwin stated, “The notion that vaccination causes autoimmunity is almost certainly false. However, it is likely that a combination of genetics, environmental factors, and overstimulation of the immune system (which can occur as a result of overvaccination) contribute to the 1development of many autoimmune diseases.”
So the author denied a direct link … but did acknowledge that over-vaccination could possibly be a factor in autoimmune disease. But Gershwin’s review didn’t include a 1999 study at Purdue University titled Vaccine-Induced Autoimmunity In The Dog (11).
Researchers Hogenesch H, Azcona-Olivera J, Scott-Moncrieff C, et al found that vaccinated dogs developed autoantibodies to many of their own biochemicals … including fibronectin, laminin, DNA, albumin, cytochrome C, cardiolipin, and collagen. The researchers believed this might be due to bovine serum and cell culture components in vaccines. Adjuvants in vaccines caused these bovine components to stimulate the dogs’ immune response and “ … induce antibodies that cross-react with conserved canine antigens.”
The study concluded: “… we have demonstrated that vaccination of dogs using a routine protocol and commonly used vaccines, induces autoantibodies.”
There’s no question that antibiotics can affect your dog’s immune system by harming beneficial bacteria in the gut. Designed to kill bacteria, antibiotics affect both good and bad bugs. Since 90% of the immune system is in the gut, this can disrupt the microbial balance that helps your dog resist disease. But it’s not clear whether this can lead to autoimmune disease.
A 2020 paper at the Cleveland Clinic and KU Leuven in Belgium, explored whether antibiotics may contribute to autoimmune disease (13), using type 1 diabetes and IBD as two key examples. Results were mixed. They did find “some data suggest that widespread use of antibiotics may facilitate autoimmunity through gut dysbiosis,” … but added, “there are also data to suggest antibiotics may hold the potential to improve disease activity.”
The study also mentioned that preclinical trials showed promising results for fecal microbiota transplants in treating autoimmune diseases, along with probiotic and prebiotic therapy.
Can You Avoid Autoimmune Disease In Dogs?
Dr. Jean Dodds DVM says, “You can help prevent the development of autoimmune diseases in your dog by giving him good nutrition and reducing his exposure to toxins.” So the soundest approach to avoiding autoimmune disease is to keep your dog in the best health you can, by feeding a healthy, fresh diet, minimizing toxins in his environment, and supporting his immune system.
So here are some things you can do right now that may reduce the risk of your dog getting an autoimmune disease.
- Feed a whole food, raw meat diet with quality proteins and healthy fats. Include fruits and vegetables, organically grown if possible, for antioxidants.
- Add probiotics to balance the beneficial bacteria in your dog’s microbiome and maintain a healthy immune response.
- Include foods that support immunity, like medicinal mushrooms and omega-3 fatty acids.
- Use inflammation-reducing add-ins like turmeric and ginger.
- Limit your dog’s exposure to chemicals and toxins. Minimize medications, avoid pesticides and chemical products in your home and yard.
- Exercise your dog. Physical activity stimulates healthy blood flow and deep breathing which both support the immune system.
- Manage your dog’s stress (14) level. Give him plenty of outings and opportunities to relax in nature. That’ll be good for your own stress levels too … which can also be a factor in your dog’s mood.
There are many unknowns in the causes of autoimmune disease, so it’s difficult to protect your dog from everything that can harm him. Instead, focus on taking charge of the things you can control, so you minimize the risks of him developing an autoimmune condition.
- Jäger A, Kuchroo VK. Effector and regulatory T-cell subsets in autoimmunity and tissue inflammation. Scand J Immunol. 2010 Sep;72(3):173-84.
- Catchpole, B, et al. Canine diabetes mellitus: can old dogs teach us new tricks? Diabetologia, 2005 Oct;48(10):1948-56. doi: 10.1007/s00125-005-1921-1. Epub 2005 Sep 8.
- O’Kell AL, et al. Comparative Pathogenesis of Autoimmune Diabetes in Humans, NOD Mice, and Canines: Has a Valuable Animal Model of Type 1 Diabetes Been Overlooked? Diabetes. 2017 Jun;66(6):1443-1452.
- Kaur, G, et al. Autoimmunity-Basics and link with periodontal disease. Autoimmun Rev. 2017 Jan;16(1):64-71.
- Chase, K, et al. Understanding the genetics of autoimmune disease: two loci that regulate late onset Addison’s disease in Portuguese Water Dogs. Int J Immunogenet. 2006 Jun;33(3):179-84.
- Mu Q, Kirby J, Reilly CM, Luo XM. Leaky Gut As a Danger Signal for Autoimmune Diseases. Front Immunol. 2017 May 23;8:598.
- Lerner A, Aminov R, Matthias T. Dysbiosis May Trigger Autoimmune Diseases via Inappropriate Post-Translational Modification of Host Proteins. Front Microbiol. 2016 Feb 5;7:84.
- Fasano A. Zonulin, regulation of tight junctions, and autoimmune diseases. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2012;1258(1):25-33.
- Corsini, E., et al. Perfluorinated compounds: emerging POPs with potential immunotoxicity. Toxicology letters. 2014. 230(2), 263–270.
- Gershwin LJ. Adverse Reactions to Vaccination: From Anaphylaxis to Autoimmunity. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2018 Mar;48(2):279-290.
- Hogenesch H, Azcona-Olivera J, Scott-Moncrieff C, et al. Vaccine-induced autoimmunity in the dog. Adv Vet Med 1999;41:733–47.
- Vangoitsenhoven R, Cresci GAM. Role of Microbiome and Antibiotics in Autoimmune Diseases. Nutr Clin Pract. 2020 Jun;35(3):406-416.
- Stojanovich L, Marisavljevich D. Stress as a trigger of autoimmune disease. Autoimmun Rev. 2008 Jan;7(3):209-13.