Lupus is an autoimmune disease that can affect humans and dogs. The disease is known as the “great imitator” because it often resembles a number of other conditions.
Although rare, there are two main types of lupus that a dog can contract. These are systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and discoid (cutaneous) lupus erythematosus (DLE). This post will focus on both types including signs and symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and life expectancy.
If your dog was recently diagnosed with lupus, you may feel overwhelmed and concerned. These are common and understandable feelings to have. The best we can do is help you understand the disease better while helping you know what to do to improve and lengthen your dog’s life expectancy.
How Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) Will Affect Your Dog
SLE is a disease where the dog’s immune system attacks its own tissues. It can be difficult to diagnose because the signs often mimic other medical conditions. In fact, the signs and symptoms of lupus can vary from dog to dog.
This is because the disease can attack multiple organs at different times. It can come on suddenly (acute) or slowly develop over time and turn into a chronic condition.
Signs and Symptoms of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus in Dogs
This disease is difficult to diagnose because of the variety of symptoms involved. One dog may arrive at the veterinarian clinic with extreme lameness while another may show up with unusual skin conditions.
Keep in mind that the following common symptoms of lupus (SLE) could also point to other conditions. Common signs include:
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- lameness – limp
- stiff muscles
- pain in the joints or swelling
- increased thirst and frequent urination (may signal kidney problems)
- ulcers around or in the mouth
- ulcers or sores around the genitals
- twitching or seizures (neurological)
- hair loss
- skin color changes (dermatological)
- crusty skin (dermatological
- low white blood cell count
- swollen lymph nodes
- spleen or thyroid involvement – can cause organ-specific symptoms.
The first signs of lupus in dogs are usually fatigue and loss of appetite. Your dog may not have the energy to do the everyday things he/she used to This includes regular exercise, playing, walking, chasing ball…all the things he used to love to do.
The most serious signs of lupus in dogs include:
- kidney problems
Approximately 30% of dogs with lupus will develop something called Immune-Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA). The signs of this include:
- pale gums
- exercise intolerance
- rapid breathing
- easily bruised
- low platelet count (thrombocytopenia)
Lupus is rare in dogs. However, when it does occur it can be difficult to diagnose because the affected dog can have a variety of symptoms. Often, these symptoms can be attributed to something else. Without treatment, lupus in dogs can be fatal.
Breeds More Commonly Affected by Lupus
Keep in mind that lupus is rare. However, there are some breeds more predisposed than others. These are:
- German shepherds
- Irish Setters
- Afghan Hounds
- Shetland Sheepdogs
How Old Are Dogs When They Develop Lupus?
Although this disease can occur in any breed and at any age, it seems to be more common in young and middle-aged dogs.
How is SLE Diagnosed in Dogs
As mentioned earlier, lupus can be difficult to detect in dogs. As a result, it can take longer to detect and can be a frustrating process. In order to get to the bottom of the problem, veterinarians must go through an elimination process to rule out other causes.
Dog owners often bring their dogs in for a checkup when the dog shows signs of secondary skin conditions. Their dogs may be experiencing lameness, low energy, or kidney related problems. The veterinarian will do a thorough physical examination and history to start.
Tests Used to Diagnose Lupus in Dogs
The following tests are used to rule out a variety of causes for your dog’s symptoms. They can help the veterinarian understand how the organs are functioning, whether red and white blood cells are high or low, and test for antinuclear antibodies. If the veterinarian spots anti-nuclear antibodies, it gives a good clue that the dog has some kind of infection or autoimmune disorder.
Routine blood tests can show abnormal platelet counts. It can detect anemia and indicate how well kidney function is working. Blood tests can also screen for elevated protein levels.
Urine samples are useful in detecting abnormal kidney function along with protein levels.
ANA Test (anti-nuclear antibodies)
This test is vital because 95% of dogs with lupus will test positive for antinuclear antibodies.
Other useful tests in diagnosing lupus in dogs include:
- Radiographs of the abdomen and joints
- Kidney ultrasound
- Tests to rule out tick-borne diseases
In order to get a definitive diagnosis, the veterinarian will go through a series of tests to rule out secondary conditions. As mentioned earlier, lupus is the great imitator of other disease and it takes a process of elimination to get to the final diagnosis.
Discoid Lupus Erythematosus (DLE)
Discoid (cutaneous) lupus erythematosus in dogs affects the skin, unlike SLE which is systemic. If your dog is diagnosed with DLE, it’s important to know that it does not progress to SLE. They are two different types of lupus.
The first signs of discoid lupus are usually seen on the nose. Signs can extend to the bridge of the nose and will sometimes affect the ears or mouth.
Common signs of discoid lupus include:
- loss of nose pigment (keep in mind that it’s normal for senior dogs to lose pigment on their noses)
- scaling and cracking of the skin around the nose
The nasal planum (which is the hairless area around the dog’s nostrils) becomes unusually smooth.
Ulcerations can affect the skin around the eyes, on the ear flaps, and near the genitals. Although uncommon, skin lesions can spread across the entire body.
Diagnosing Discoid Lupus in Dogs
As with SLE, diagnosing discoid lupus involves eliminating other potential disease. When there is skin involvement, the veterinarian may want to do a punch biopsy for lab analysis. Sedation is typically required for this procedure. Afterwards, the area will be stitched with regular or dissolvable stitches.
Some diagnostic tools may be similar to the ones used to detect SLE. This is because the veterinarian has to go through a process of elimination to get to the root of the problem.
Treating Discoid Lupus
This condition requires a multi-prong approach to treatment. Sun exposure can worsen the condition due to the UV radiation. Although you could apply sunscreen to the nose, your dog will just lick it off. There are pet sunscreens available, but ultimately your dog will lick that off as well.
The treatment options used will depend on the severity of the systems. Suggestions include:
Avoid the Sun
Aim to take your dog out early in the morning or later in the afternoon/evening.
Steroids may be helpful in treating DLE. Unfortunately, they can cause uncomfortable systemic side-effects. To offset this problem, topical steroids can be used to minimize the effects.
Antibiotics and Vitamin B
Antibiotics like Tetracycline are useful in treating discoid lupus in dogs. In addition a B vitamin supplement has shown to be effective in 70% of dogs with DLE. It can take a few months to notice any difference.
Oral steroids like prednisone are used to get the condition under control. Once that happens, the veterinarian may try to lower the dose to the most effective dosage with the fewest side-effects.
This drug is what’s called an immunomodulator. It works by helping to suppress the immune system to avoid future flare-ups of lupus. Side-effects including stomach upset are common.
This is a topical immunomodulator that is effective in treating discoid lupus. The trick, of course, is not allowing your dog to lick it off. If your dog does happen to lick some of it off, it will not cause any problems.
What Causes Lupus in Dogs?
Why the immune system is triggered to attack it’s own cells and body remains a mystery. That said, there are some theories on why this may occur in some dogs including:
- genetic factors
- certain viruses
- other immune disorders
- environmental factors
Life Expectancy of a Dog with Lupus
Dogs with discoid cutaneous lupus have a good outlook and prognosis. With appropriate care and control of symptoms, dogs can live a normal lifespan. You can expect flare-ups of the disease and your dog will require ongoing check-ups for any new skin lesions, etc.
If left untreated, your dog is more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma. The best idea for your dog’s quality of life is to maintain regular veterinarian visits. Consistent care will help your dog life a long and happy life.
Systemic Lupus Life Expectancy
SLE is a chronic and progressive disease with no cure. Life expectancy is difficult to pinpoint because it depends on many factors. Early diagnosis and treatment is important, but not always possible.
Keeping this disease under control requires a lot of commitment from the pet owner. It may take some trial and error to find the right combination of medicines. Recheck visits are important. In order to ensure vital organs are not severely affected, the dog will require ongoing treatment and tests for the rest of his/her life.
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I want to thank you for taking the time to read this post. Please remember that this is not meant to substitute veterinarian care. Only a licensed vet can offer you sound medical advice. If you are worried about your dog having any of the signs and symptoms noted above, please get him/her to a veterinarian.
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