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Old dog resting on hardwood floors

The essentials

  • Lupus is a rare disease of the immune system — It can affect both humans and dogs. There is currently no cure, so those afflicted carry the disease for life.
  • The two types of canine lupus are known as SLE and DLE — These conditions differ greatly in symptoms and severity. DLE is more easily managed, while SLE can be chronic and fatal.
  • Lupus in dogs is sometimes called “the great imitator” — The disease can be tricky to diagnose since many of its symptoms mimic those of other canine conditions.
  • Certain breeds are more predisposed to lupus — These include German shepherds, Shetland sheepdogs, Old English sheepdogs, Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers, German shorthaired pointers, and collies, among others.

Lupus in dogs: an overview

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that can affect dogs similar to how it affects humans. While generally rare in dogs, autoimmune diseases can have devastating effects when left untreated.

With lupus, the body’s immune system attacks its own organs and tissues by producing antibodies. The resulting reaction leads to inflammation, abnormalities, and dysfunction, and can affect several organs and bodily systems.

In dogs, lupus usually takes one of two forms. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) affects multiple bodily systems and can be chronic and potentially fatal. The less serious form, discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) is considered an autoimmune skin disease and is often contained to dogs’ noses and faces. Knowing the difference between the two types can help owners better recognize and seek treatment for these conditions.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) in dogs

SLE in dogs is an immune-mediated disease. What this means is that the body’s immune system begins to attack its own tissue. Dogs’ bodies (and our own) contain substances, called antigens, that stimulate immune system reactions. They also produce antibodies that induce an immune response. This helps both dog and human bodies deal with diseases and infections.

In the case of SLE, dogs’ antibodies fight against their own antigens as if they are foreign. Since it targets immunity, SLE can have domino effects on several of the body’s other systems. While definitive causes of SLE are still being studied, genetic and environmental factors are thought to play a role.

German shepherds, Shetland sheepdogs, Afghan hounds, Irish wolfhounds, collies, poodles, and beagles are all breeds considered to be predisposed to SLE.

Symptoms of SLE

Sometimes called “the great imitator,” lupus can be difficult to diagnose in dogs. Signs can take many forms and often mimic other conditions and autoimmune diseases, including pemphigus. General symptoms like lethargy, decreased appetite, or weight loss can occur. However, the disease can also affect specific systems and parts of the body.

Symptoms can be chronic and progressive but often appear suddenly. Some of the more common signs of SLE in dogs include:

  • Skin conditions: Up to 33% of dogs with SLE exhibit dermatologic signs. This can take many forms, including redness, hair loss, crusty or scaly skin, and depigmentation.
  • Kidney damage: Initially, clinical signs of kidney involvement in SLE are hard to detect. Over time, dogs may develop symptoms including vomiting and increased thirst or urination.
  • Joint pain: SLE can cause polyarthritis, or inflammation of the joints, which can lead to shifting leg lameness, pain, and swelling.
  • Immune system issues: Autoimmune hemolytic anemia (AIHA) affects up to 30% of dogs with SLE. This abnormality of the blood can cause pale gums and clotting issues.

SLE diagnosis and treatment

If your pup is experiencing any of these symptoms and you’re unsure why, you should visit your veterinarian right away. While there’s currently no single method to detect SLE, doctors can perform a series of diagnostic exams, including blood tests, to pinpoint the problem.

Doctors also rely on antinuclear antibody (ANA) tests to help determine if your pup has SLE. But, false positives and negatives can occur. Since SLE can affect different body parts, vets may also perform an X-ray to examine joints, or an ultrasound to monitor damage to the kidneys.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for SLE, so dogs often require lifelong treatment. The disease is chronic and progressive, and prognosis is sadly poor when left unaddressed. But, catching SLE early gives owners a chance to manage symptoms and maintain a happy lifestyle for their pets.

Generally, vets will prescribe immunosuppressive medications to combat SLE. Corticosteroids like prednisone are effective at treating milder cases. Sometimes, though, stronger immunosuppressants, such as cyclophosphamide or azathioprine, may be prescribed. Doctors can also treat secondary skin infections, like staph, with a course of antibiotics. Lastly, avoiding UV light exposure from the sun can help treatment in some cases.

Discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) in dogs

Unlike SLE, discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) is contained to a dog’s skin. Therefore, DLE is a far more benign condition than the potentially fatal SLE. DLE almost always affects dogs’ noses and faces.

Besides collies, breeds including German shepherds, Shetland sheepdogs, and Siberian huskies tend to be predisposed to DLE. The underlying causes for DLE remain largely unknown. However, the condition is often more common in sunny climates, and symptoms are often made worse by ultraviolet (UV) exposure.

Symptoms of DLE

Unlike SLE, symptoms of DLE are usually confined to dogs’ faces, so it’s often easier to recognize. While some effects can spread to other areas of the face or body, the majority of DLE symptoms center on the nose. Some common clinical signs of DLE include:

  • Loss of pigmentation in the nose
  • Crusting, scaling, or cracking of the skin on the nose
  • Lesions or ulcerated sores on or around the nose
  • Changes in the texture of the nose
  • Inflammation and redness of the face
Nose of a dog afflicted by DLE

Nose of a dog afflicted by DLE. 📷 Wikipedia Commons

DLE diagnosis and treatment

Biopsies are the main method veterinarians use to diagnose DLE. A skin biopsy sample is usually taken from the nose and tested for the presence of DLE. The biopsy can also help rule out other common skin conditions, like nasal hyperkeratosis. Dogs may require sedation and stitches for the biopsy, but the procedure is generally uncomplicated.

Like SLE, DLE is an autoimmune disease that often stays with a dog for life. Unlike SLE, however, the prognosis for dogs with DLE is generally good with proper treatment. Often, vets will prescribe an oral antibiotic like tetracycline to treat secondary bacterial infections.

Topical steroid creams can also be effective, but owners must be careful not to let their dog lick the medication from their nose. In more severe cases, stronger immunosuppressants, like those used to treat SLE, may also be prescribed.

Lastly, dogs with DLE should avoid sun exposure whenever possible, as UV light can exacerbate the issue. For owners, this might mean adjusting walk schedules to minimize exposure or keeping dogs indoors as often as possible while they heal.

Vet-recommended supplements for lupus management

For mild cases of DLE in dogs, supplements like vitamin E or omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can prove effective. Here are a couple of our favorites:

Frequently asked questions 

Can dogs get lupus?

Yes. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) are the two main forms of canine lupus. Though both are rare, SLE is more severe.

What are the symptoms of lupus in dogs?

Symptoms of DLE include crusting, lesions, and discoloration of the nose. SLE affects other organs as well, like the skin, joints, and kidneys, and can cause symptoms including lethargy, appetite loss, hair loss, joint inflammation, increased urination, and more.

Is lupus in dogs fatal?

As an autoimmune disease, lupus unfortunately stays with dogs for life. Left untreated, SLE can be chronic and potentially fatal.

How is lupus in dogs treated?

Lupus treatment depends on the severity of symptoms. Immunosuppressant medication is the most common treatment option for pups with lupus.