Lupus in Dogs

Written by Small Door's medical experts

Lupus in dogs is an autoimmune disease that can be difficult to diagnose and treat; and once it develops it requires lifelong management. However, understanding the symptoms, diagnostic process, and the available treatment options can help you manage your dog’s condition as well as your own expectations.

In This Article

What is lupus in dogs?

There are two main types of lupus that dogs can develop: systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), which affects the dog’s entire body, and discoid (cutaneous) lupus erythematosus (DLE), which affects the skin. This article will focus solely on systemic lupus erythematosus.

Systemic lupus erythematosus, commonly referred to as lupus, is a rare and potentially-fatal autoimmune disease in dogs. It causes the dog’s own immune system to attack multiple body tissues or organs. This form of canine lupus is systemic, meaning it can impact every organ in the dog’s body.

Signs & symptoms of lupus in dogs

Diagnosing SLE lupus in dogs is challenging, because it can have a number of different symptoms that vary from dog to dog. Many dogs that are diagnosed with canine lupus are initially taken to the veterinarian for what the owner believes is an injured leg, only to learn that the dog is suffering from lupus. 

Symptoms of lupus in dogs will vary depending on which organs or tissue systems are affected. The signs can be acute, chronic, or both, and may vary in intensity and severity from case to case. Unfortunately the external symptoms of SLE lupus in dogs are indicative of related organ failure that is occurring internally. Issues with walking show that the lupus is attacking the muscles, while neurological issues show the lupus is attacking the brain.

Common symptoms of SLE lupus include:

  • Anemia

  • Fever

  • Lethargy/Tiredness

  • Loss of appetite

  • Weight loss

  • Lameness

  • Muscle stiffness

  • Pain and swelling in the joints

  • Kidney problems (increased thirst, frequent urination)

  • Ulcers around the mouth or genitals

  • Neurologic symptoms (twitching, seizures)

  • Dermatological symptoms (hair loss, skin color changes, crusty skin)

Initial symptoms of lupus in dogs often include signs of general malaise, like lethargy, appetite loss, weight loss, and lameness. Approximately one third of affected dogs will develop dermatological symptoms, like hair loss, ulceration, crusty skin, and scarring; about half of all dogs with lupus experience arthritis in multiple joints (polyarthritis).

Some of the more serious symptoms of lupus include kidney problems and anemia, both of which can be fatal. Signs of kidney involvement include increased thirst and urination, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, and muscle-wasting. Approximately 30% of dogs with lupus will develop a form of anemia called Immune-Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA). If your dog has lupus, be aware of the signs of IMHA, which include weakness, pale gums, exercise intolerance, rapid breathing, and bruising. Thrombocytopenia (low platelet count) can also be a problem.

Additional symptoms of lupus in dogs include a low white blood cell count, mouth ulcers, dementia, swollen lymph nodes, seizures, proteinuria, and involvement of other organs, like the spleen or thyroid gland, which can cause organ-specific symptoms.

How did my dog get lupus?

Dogs develop lupus when their bodies form antibodies targeting their own body tissues. Unfortunately, there’s often no definitive explanation for why this occurs. SLE can be heritable, while in other cases, it seems to be triggered by an infection or certain medications.

Dog breeds that commonly develop canine lupus

Some dog breeds are statistically more likely to develop SLE lupus than others: 

  • German Shepherds

  • Beagles

  • Poodles

  • Collies

  • Irish Setters

  • Afghan Hounds

  • Shetland Sheepdogs

Canine lupus can occur in any dog breed at any age, but it is more common in young and middle-aged dogs.

Diagnosing SLE lupus in dogs

Diagnosing lupus in dogs is a complicated and often frustrating process. There is no single test that can definitively diagnose the disease. Instead, veterinarians must rule out other potential causes for your dog’s symptoms while also looking for markers of autoimmune conditions. Often, dogs present with secondary conditions like skin disease, lameness, anemia, or kidney damage, all of which can have a wide variety of causes. Your dog’s age, breed, and health history may also initially cause your veterinarian to suspect other conditions.

Common canine lupus tests

SLE activates an immune system response that can attack any of the body’s organs, but frequently impacts the kidneys, blood, joints, lungs, the nervous system, heart, and skin. The following tests may be used to determine if those organs are being impacted, allowing your veterinarian to narrow down the diagnosis.

  • Bloodwork

  • Urinalysis

  • Biopsy

  • Fluid Analysis

  • ANA test (anti-nuclear antibodies)

The ANA test is important because 95% of dogs who have lupus will test positive for anti-nuclear antibodies. The test on its own is not conclusive however, as anti-nuclear antibodies can appear as a result of infection or from other types of autoimmune disorders.

The testing process

A full work-up is required in most cases of lupus. This includes routine blood and urine tests, which can show abnormalities like low platelet counts, anemia, altered kidney function, and elevated protein levels in the blood and urine. Radiographs (x-rays) of the abdomen and joints are often recommended, while an ultrasound of the kidneys can enable veterinarians to make an even more accurate evaluation of their condition. Depending on the results of initial tests, additional urine tests may be required, along with diagnostic tests for other conditions with similar symptoms, like tick-borne diseases (such as Lyme disease).

Immune assays 

Once other causes have been ruled out, the vet may recommend performing several immune assays. These tests can yield a partial diagnosis, but none are definitive by themselves. Your veterinarian may also suggest aspirating fluid from inflamed joints for analysis and/or performing additional immunological tests or biopsies from joint tissues, kidneys, and skin.

Ultimately, a diagnosis of lupus involves ruling out other conditions, documenting the involvement of at least two separate organ or tissue systems, and at least one positive result from an immunological test.

Treating your dog for lupus

First, your veterinarian will treat any serious or life-threatening symptoms, like kidney damage and IMHA. This can include hospitalization and supportive care, in the case of kidney failure, or blood transfusions, in the case of IMHA.

Once these symptoms have been resolved, your veterinarian will most likely recommend a course of treatment designed to decrease the autoimmune and inflammatory activity causing your dog’s symptoms. Anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive medications like corticosteroids (such as prednisone), and sometimes additional immunosuppressive medications like cyclosporine, azathioprine, and cyclophosphamide, may be prescribed. Other medications or lifestyle adjustments, like a change in diet or exercise, may be required to help resolve other symptoms.

In most cases, your veterinarian will start your dog off on a high dose of corticosteroids. Once the disease is under control, the dosage can be tapered, but it may need to be adjusted over the course of your dog’s life. Further medications may also be required to treat the side effects of anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive medications.

Is there a cure for canine lupus?

No, unfortunately there is no cure for canine lupus. Dogs with lupus will live with the condition for the rest of their lives.

Is lupus in dogs contagious for humans or other pets?

No, lupus is not contagious, and cannot be transmitted to humans or other pets.

What is the cost for treating lupus in dogs?

Lupus can be expensive to diagnose, treat, and manage. Diagnostic testing, medications, other treatments, and follow-up vet visits all add up. Because it’s a lifelong disease, with the potential for complications down the road, the cost of treating lupus can easily come to hundreds or thousands of dollars over time. Talk to your veterinarian about any financial concerns you may have.

Recovery and management of lupus in dogs

Your dog’s prognosis depends on several factors, including the organs or tissues targeted, the severity of the symptoms, and how well your dog responds to medication. In all cases, lupus requires lifelong management. This entails regular veterinary visits, medication, and an understanding of the symptoms of lupus flare-ups and dangerous complications, like kidney damage and IMHA. Many dogs live relatively healthy lives once their symptoms are under control. However, damage to organs and tissues can have potentially fatal consequences.

Furthermore, the medications required to manage lupus can themselves have damaging and potentially fatal effects. This is why it is essential to rule out other conditions before beginning treatment for lupus. Corticosteroids like prednisone can damage the liver, in addition to having other side effects. Certain immunosuppressants may also have adverse effects on liver function, kidney function, and blood cells. Regular laboratory tests will help monitor the health of your dog’s organs.

Sunlight can aggravate lupus and cause flare-ups of symptoms. Consider changing your dog’s exercise routine to early morning and later in the evening, and limit the time spent outside during the day to reduce the frequency of flare-ups.

Canine lupus life expectancy

Canine lupus is a potentially fatal disease, so it’s important to be realistic about the outcomes. Managing lupus can include taking immunosuppressive drugs, which will prevent the immune system from attacking the dog’s organs, but also make them susceptible to other types of infection. Because lupus can attack and disrupt the function of any organ in the dog’s body it can quickly become fatal, especially if the lungs, heart, or kidneys are damaged.

Can you prevent lupus in dogs?

No. As lupus is an autoimmune condition, it cannot be prevented. However, regular veterinary visits and a healthy lifestyle may make it easier for your veterinarian to manage the condition once it has been diagnosed.

Is there a vaccine for lupus in dogs?

No, there is no vaccine for lupus.

Summary of lupus in dogs

Lupus is a rare autoimmune disease in dogs that causes their own immune system to attack the body. Symptoms and severity can vary from dog to dog, often depending on which part of the body is affected, and it can be fatal. Lifelong treatment is required, which may involve anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive medications, diet and lifestyle changes.

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