Diagnosing and Treating Dog Lupus The Different Kinds of Lupus

A Sad Looking Dog Laying On The Floor

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that can attack your dog's nervous system and vital organs. Treatment options will depend on which form of lupus your dog has. Find important information here about this potentially fatal disease.

Lupus is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system produces antibodies to attack cells, organs, and tissues that it mistakenly sees as dangerous. There are two forms of lupus that can be found in dogs -- discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). DLE is a more common form of the disease and it affects only the skin, most often a dog’s nose. SLE is a more rare form of the disease in which the blood, skin, nervous systems, and major organs are attacked. This can obviously cause a lot of problems for a dog, and if left untreated, can be fatal.

Here we discuss the diagnosis, treatment, and management of dog lupus.

Diagnosing Dog Lupus

Visit your veterinarian if your dog is showing symptoms of either form of the disease.

SLE can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms can mimic those of so many other problems, including cancer, kidney disease, or an adverse reaction to medication. A review of symptoms and blood testing will allow your veterinarian to get close to -- if not confirm -- a diagnosis. Dogs with SLE test positive for antinuclear antibodies (ANA), and this is one way of distinguishing the disease from some other medical problems.

DLE is usually easier to diagnose, but it too can mimic symptoms of other conditions including ringworm of the nose and nasal lymphoma, so your veterinarian will need to rule those out. DLE is typically diagnosed through an examination of symptoms and a skin biopsy (usually taken from the nose). A dog will usually require stitches following the biopsy.

Treatment for Dog Lupus

Dogs with SLE usually require lifelong treatment, and sometimes the damage caused by the disease may be irreversible and result in death. Treatment is aimed at making the dog more comfortable by reducing inflammation and suppressing the inappropriate immune response. Treatment can vary depending on what organs have been affected.

Common treatment options for SLE include:

  • Anti-inflammatory/immunosuppressive drugs such as NSAIDs or corticosteroids such as Prednisone.
  • Additional immunosuppressive drugs such as Azathioprine.
  • Antibiotics to treat any secondary infections.
  • Chemotherapeutic treatments to suppress abnormal immune responses and treat pain.
  • Limiting exposure to sunlight.

DLE is a much easier form of the disease to treat, but it is still not curable. The goal of treatment is to heal and control the skin lesions caused by the disease. Treatment will ultimately depend on the severity of the condition, but common treatment options include:

  • Topical corticosteroids to suppress the abnormal immune response and reduce inflammation.
  • Oral steroids such as Prednisone are sometimes used to get the condition under control quickly. Following stabilization, they can sometimes work as the sole therapy for the condition, though there may be undesirable side effects.
  • Combination of Tetracycline and Niacinamide. Tetracycline is an antibiotic and Niacinamide is a B vitamin supplement. Used together, these medications have been found to be 70% effective in treating dogs with DLE. Doxycycline is often substituted for Tetracycline because it can be administered twice a day instead of three times.
  • Omega 3 Fatty Acids and vitamin E can help to reduce pain and inflammation.
  • Dogs should avoid extended exposure to sunlight as it can exasperate the condition.

Management for Dog Lupus

SLE will need to be managed long-term with immunosuppressive therapy. Unfortunately, there can be adverse side effects with this type of therapy, including increased risk of infection, bone marrow suppression, and weight gain. Your veterinarian will want to monitor your dog with regular check-ups, blood tests, and urinalysis.

Dogs with DLE may also require long-term treatment, though the required dosing or application of medications may decrease once the skin lesions are healed. Your veterinarian will monitor your dog’s progress with regular check-ups.

Dogs with either form of the disease should not be bred as it may have a genetic component.

The Causes and Symptoms of Lupus in Dogs

Lupus is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the body’s immune system sees its own cells, tissues, and organs as dangerous and attacks them with antibodies. There are two forms of lupus that can affect dogs -- systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE). While SLE is a much more serious form of the disease, it is important to be aware of both and what to look out for as far as symptoms. Read on to learn about the causes and symptoms of lupus in dogs.

Causes of Lupus in Dogs

The word “lupus” is Latin for wolf, and the disease was given the name in the 19th century when it was thought to be caused by a wolf’s bite due to the wolf-like facial rash that appeared on humans with the disease. We know today that this is not the case, but beyond that understanding the definitive causes of the disease still remain unknown.

Some experts believe that there is a genetic component and the condition may be inherited. Others suggest that certain factors can contribute to the disease, including exposure to ultraviolet light (sunlight), stress, reaction to medication, and viral infections.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a relatively rare and potentially fatal form of the disease in which the immune system produces antibodies to attack cells, tissues, and organs that it sees as dangerous. This causes inflammation and damage to skin, blood, nervous system, joints, and major organs, including the heart, lungs, and kidneys. This form of the disease is most common in middle-aged female dogs, and commonly affected breeds include the BeagleGerman ShepherdOld English SheepdogShetland SheepdogPoodleRough CollieIrish Setter, and Afghan Hound.

Discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) is a more common form of the disease and is confined to the skin. It is often referred to as “collie nose” or “nasal solar dermatitis” because it usually affects the skin of the nose. However, in some cases it can also travel up the bridge of the nose or show up in the ears and mouth. Like SLE, DLE is an autoimmune disease. The difference is that with DLE, the immune system is only attacking and damaging skin cells and tissues.

Symptoms of Lupus in Dogs

The symptoms of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) include:

  • Arthritis in several joints
  • Muscle pain
  • Stiffness
  • Shifting lameness in the legs
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Skin sores
  • Fever
  • Anemia
  • Hair loss
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Enlarged liver and kidney
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Seizures
  • Dementia
  • Proteinuria (protein in the urine)
  • Reduced platelet and white blood cell count

Most dogs with SLE are first taken to the veterinarian because they are exhibiting lameness or skin problems.

The symptoms of discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) include:

  • Loss of nose pigment
  • Scaling and cracking nose skin
  • Redness
  • Sores or ulceration

The symptoms of DLE can be symptoms of other conditions as well, including ringworm of the nose, nasal lymphoma, and staph infection. Your veterinarian will accurately diagnose the condition through a biopsy of the nose tissue.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens if my dog has lupus?

Lupus, or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is an autoimmune disease that can affect dogs as well as humans. In dogs, lupus can affect various organs and tissues in the body, including the skin, joints, kidneys, and blood vessels. If your dog has lupus, the symptoms will depend on which organs are affected. Some common symptoms of lupus in dogs include skin lesions or ulcers, hair loss or thinning, joint pain and swelling, lethargy or loss of appetite, fever, blood in the urine, seizures or other neurological symptoms. Diagnosing lupus in dogs can be challenging because the symptoms can be similar to other conditions. Your veterinarian will likely perform a physical exam, blood tests, and possibly a biopsy or other diagnostic tests to confirm the diagnosis.

Can a dog live a normal life with lupus?

Dogs with discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE), a form of lupus that primarily affects the skin, may require ongoing treatment to manage their symptoms. While symptoms may come and go, with appropriate treatment, many dogs with DLE can live a relatively normal life. On the other hand, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), which can affect multiple organs in the body, is a more serious form of lupus that requires lifelong treatment. Dogs with SLE may experience a variety of symptoms, including joint pain, fever, and kidney disease, among others. Treatment typically involves medication to manage symptoms and suppress the immune response. With appropriate management, many dogs with SLE can lead happy and healthy lives, but ongoing medical care is necessary to keep the disease under control.

What causes lupus in dogs?

The exact cause of lupus in dogs is not fully understood, but it is believed to be a complex interaction between genetic and environmental factors. Certain breeds of dogs, such as German Shepherds, Shetland Sheepdogs, and Collies, are more prone to developing lupus. This suggests that there may be a genetic component to the disease. Exposure to certain environmental triggers, such as sunlight or certain medications, may trigger an autoimmune response in dogs that are predisposed to lupus. Lupus is an autoimmune disease, which means that the body's immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissues. In dogs with lupus, the immune system is believed to malfunction, leading to the production of autoantibodies that attack healthy tissues. Not all dogs with genetic predispositions or exposure to environmental triggers will develop lupus, and the exact triggers that cause the disease to develop are not fully understood.

What happens if lupus goes untreated in dogs?

If left untreated, discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) can increase the risk of developing a type of skin cancer known as squamous cell carcinoma. This is because DLE can cause long-standing skin inflammation and damage, which can increase the risk of abnormal cell growth and the development of cancerous tumors. Dogs with DLE may have areas of hair loss, scaling, crusting, and ulceration on the face, ears, and nose. These areas are at increased risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma if left untreated. Therefore, it's important to seek veterinary care if you notice any skin changes in your dog, especially in areas that are exposed to sunlight. Treatment for DLE typically involves medication to manage the symptoms and reduce inflammation. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove areas of skin affected by cancerous tumors. Regular veterinary check-ups and skin examinations can help detect any potential complications of DLE, including the development of squamous cell carcinoma.

What is one of the first signs of lupus?

One of the first signs of lupus can be a skin rash that is typically red, raised, and may be shaped like a butterfly across the nose and cheeks. This rash, called a malar rash or butterfly rash, is one of the classic signs of lupus, although not all people or dogs with lupus will develop it.

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