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Autoimmune Disease in Dogs: A Holistic Approach to Recovery

ProDog’s Canine Nutritionist, Alison Frost, shares her knowledge on autoimmune disease in dogs. In her comprehensive guide, she discusses common canine autoimmune diseases, their symptoms, and what dog owners can do to help their companions recover naturally.

Alison Frost

Author: Alison Frost

Edited By: Anna Bain

Autoimmune Disease in Dogs: A Holistic Approach to Recovery

Autoimmune disease in dogs are on the rise. It seems as though our canine companions are becoming more like us, and not necessarily in a good way. Canine autoimmune disease, along with other “human-like” health concerns, are a more recent development in our dogs’ health.

Autoimmune diseases in dogs appear quite similarly to their human counterparts, and are often dealt with in the same ways, with immune suppressing drugs. However, there can be safer, more natural ways to help our dogs recover from their various ailments, with canine autoimmune disease being no exception.

In this article, I’ll share details on autoimmune disease in dogs, what symptoms to be aware of, and how in many cases, you can help support your dog’s immune system naturally.

Understanding autoimmune diseases

Definition/mechanism

The definition of autoimmune disease is the body attacking itself. The purpose of immune cells, or antibodies, is to defend the body against foreign invaders such as viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens that can harm the body’s various systems. When canine autoimmune disease is present, the immune system sees friendly cells as invaders, and proceeds to attack them in an attempt to protect the body.

This process is essentially the result of the immune system being confused; it thinks it’s doing its job, and in a way, it is. However, attacking foreign invaders and turning on the body’s own cells are vastly different: one process keeps the body healthy, whilst the other creates disease. The immune system is programmed to recognise the difference between friend and foe, but with canine autoimmune disease it’s wiring gets crossed.

There are many theories on the causes of autoimmune disease in dogs. Some health professionals believe that certain viruses can confuse the immune system’s programming, whilst others blame genetic predispositions. However, when autoimmune disease presents in dogs a deeper issue exists; and it’s usually within the gut.

Manifestation in dogs

Autoimmune disease in dogs can manifest in a variety of ways. Some dogs will become obviously ill, acting totally out of character and prompting a swift trip to the vet. More often, though, the signs will be subtle, especially at first: a missed meal here and there, a gradual slow down in physical activity, or occasional digestive upsets that can easily be brushed off as “something they ate.”

If canine autoimmune disease is affecting your dog, they’re likely feeling a lot worse than they’re letting on. This is due to their natural instinct to hide their pain and discomfort, which they’ll do until they’re feeling much worse. This is why it’s so important to be aware of your dog’s regular mannerisms and habits; even small changes over time can indicate something more is going on beneath the surface. 

Common autoimmune diseases in dogs

Hypothyroidism

Whilst hypothyroidism can happen due to other issues, it’s more likely to be caused by autoimmune disease in dogs. Antibodies attack the cells of the thyroid gland, which creates difficulty in producing thyroid hormone. Some tell-tale symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

  • Unexplained weight gain (and potentially, obesity)
  • Thickened skin
  • Unable to exercise as normal
  • Increased sensitivity to cold temperatures
  • Slowing down mentally/behaviourally

Lupus 

Lupus is a canine autoimmune disease that attacks the body’s various organs and tissues, initiating widespread inflammation throughout the body. There are two types of lupus, and one is far more severe than the other. Here’s a quick breakdown of each:

Systemic lupus

Systemic lupus attacks the body’s vital structures, such as the nervous system, skin, organs, and blood, causing widespread inflammation throughout. This can prove fatal in dogs. Some signs of systemic lupus are:

  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Seizures
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Anaemia
  • Muscle pain/stiffness
  • Skin issues such as sores, rashes, and bald patches (sores can also be inside the mouth)
  • Lameness in varying limbs

Discoid lupus

Discoid lupus is the less severe of the two. It’s essentially the same process, just reserved for the skin itself. Symptoms of discoid lupus include:

  • Itchiness/obsessive scratching
  • Redness about the face, mouth, and nose
  • Flaky or scaly skin
  • Pale-coloured skin on the nose
  • Skin sores 
  • Bacterial skin infections (due to excessive scratching)

Polyarthritis 

Polyarthritis is a canine autoimmune disease in which immune cells mount their defences against the joints, causing inflammation and pain. This disease can also occur alongside other autoimmune diseases in dogs. Here are some common polyarthritis symptoms:

  • Joint swelling
  • Pain 
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • Reluctance to move
  • Crying out in pain when touched
  • Shifting lameness (occurring in different legs at different times)

IBD

Inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, happens when dogs’ immune cells attack the cells or bacteria in the gut, which leads to chronic inflammation and various digestive issues. Some symptoms of IBD in dogs include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea/bloody stool
  • Bloated stomach
  • Gas
  • Gurgling sounds coming from stomach area
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Weight loss
  • Poor coat condition
  • Depressed mood  

Addison’s disease

Addison’s disease, also known as hypoadrenocorticism, is an autoimmune condition in which the immune cells attack the adrenal glands. This inhibits the production of cortisol and aldosterone; two important hormones that are responsible for various essential functions. Here are a few common Addison’s disease symptoms:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea / bloody stool
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Decrease in body temperature
  • Hair loss
  • Skin darkening
  • Lethargy
  • Depressed mood 

Immune-mediated hemolytic anaemia 

Immune-mediated hemolytic anaemia occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly targets and destroys its own red blood cells. This condition can pose a life-threatening risk, as red blood cells play a vital role in transporting oxygen throughout the bloodstream. Common symptoms of this autoimmune disorder include:

  • Jaundice
  • White or very pale gums
  • Lethargy
  • Depressed mood
  • General weakness 
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Cold extremities
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Dizziness 

Signs, symptoms, and potential impact

As highlighted above, each canine autoimmune disease will have their own set of symptoms. However, knowing the symptoms of all potential autoimmune diseases in dogs is not necessary. As you’re with your canine companion every day and know them better than anyone, you’ll likely notice when something’s not quite right or when they’re feeling unwell. Here are some general symptoms to be on the lookout for that may signal a potential autoimmune issue:

  • Lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Loss of/decreased appetite
  • Fever
  • Skin issues such as rashes, sores, hair loss, or changes in pigment/composition
  • Mobility issues
  • Swelling/pain, especially around the joints
  • Bleeding or bruising more easily than normal
  • Pale or white gums

Whilst any of these symptoms on their own may not signal an autoimmune disease in your dog, they still warrant veterinary attention to be sure. Whether your dog has an autoimmune issue or something else going on, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Diagnosing autoimmune diseases

Veterinary diagnosis methods

Diagnosing autoimmune disease in dogs is generally done with a variety of tools, such as blood work, urinalysis, imaging, and biopsies. These are all useful in their own ways, and may or may not be utilised depending on the symptoms a dog is presenting. For example, hormone levels will likely be low in the presence of Addison’s disease, red blood cell counts will be off due to hemolytic anaemia, and so on. 

For the most part, however, diagnosing canine autoimmune disease is accomplished via the process of elimination. This means that vets work to rule out various other conditions in order to reach a consensus on what’s actually causing the dog’s symptoms. Whilst it must be done to reach a conclusion in some cases, it unfortunately also means that results sometimes take longer to identify.

Identification challenges

Diagnosing autoimmune diseases in dogs can take time and presents the challenge of first ruling out other conditions. This is partly due to the symptoms being rather general in some cases. For example, gastric upset can be caused by a multitude of health concerns, as can weight loss and skin concerns. In order to arrive at an accurate conclusion, a veterinarian must investigate all possibilities, of which there are many.

It’s also not unusual that some symptoms go unnoticed by owners due to dogs being so good at disguising their discomfort. Symptoms can be interpreted as something less serious and inevitably get worse before the correct diagnosis is made. 

Autoimmune disease in dogs is not generally suspected unless the symptoms presented are extremely clear, which unfortunately they often are not. The appropriate measures must be taken in order to paint a clearer picture of dogs’ health, this means the process is often challenging for all involved.

Issues with conventional treatments

Limitations/potential side effects

The conventional way to treat autoimmune disease in dogs (and in all species) is immunosuppression. Basically, this involves giving dogs drugs that suppress their immune systems in an attempt to prevent them from attacking their own cells. Whilst the logic behind this makes sense, and in many cases necessary, the long term consequences of this form of therapy doesn’t go without harm. 

Though it’s true that the immune system is the “official” problem, the root of canine autoimmune disease actually runs deeper than immune cells (I’ll discuss this in further detail in a moment). 

Aside from this, immunosuppression also makes dogs more vulnerable to various viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens [1]. As their immune system has essentially been muted for the time being, they are left defenceless in the face of potential illnesses that they might have warded off before being treated for canine autoimmune disease. This means that something mild and easy to deal with now becomes more serious, and potentially even life-threatening. It’s almost like trading one health disorder for another, or putting a plaster over a gaping wound: it will only hold for so long.

Alternative options to consider

Thankfully, immunosuppression is not the only option available for treating autoimmune disease in dogs. There are plenty of alternative, complementary therapies available that enable, under veterinary support, to slowly wean your dog from these medications. 

Just as they are available to humans, alternative therapies are becoming more commonplace in the veterinary world as well, and can work in tandem with conventional options to provide a healthier long term outcome. 

Some modalities offered include Traditional Chinese Medicine, which utilises herbs, nutritional therapy and acupuncture; holistic veterinary care, which offers a variety of nutritional, herbal, and lifestyle adjustment support; nutritional therapy overseen by canine nutritionists, or holistic vets, and the list goes on.

Nutritional and dietary support

The role of nutrition in auto immune disease management

80% of the immune system resides within the gut, which is responsible for providing signals to immune cells as well as various other systems in the body, including the brain, inflammatory response, and others [2]. When something is off balance within the digestive system, these signals get mixed up, causing the immune and other systems to behave erratically.  

This is why it’s so important to provide dogs with adequate, species-appropriate nutrition: they require specific essential nutrients in order for their various bodily systems to function optimally. In cases of canine autoimmune disease, when the body is already in such a state of imbalance that it’s attacking itself, it’s even more important to get to the root of the issue and target the problem from the inside out.

Once the gut regains balance and starts to repair itself, it can then begin to send the correct messages to the other systems of the body. This allows the immune system to stop overreacting, the inflammatory response to calm down, and all other systems to follow along. 

The health of the gut determines the overall health of the body, so by balancing the digestive system through natural, biologically-suited foods and nutritional supplements can produce remarkable results in all areas of health, including canine autoimmune disease.

Specific diets and supplements for autoimmune support

Whilst a raw, whole food diet is beneficial to all dogs, it’s even more critical that dogs with autoimmune disease receive adequate nutrient support. As their gut is already compromised in such a severe way, feeding them foods that will boost their digestive health is key to their immune systems being able to reset and recover.

Anti inflammatory foods are especially helpful in canine autoimmune disease, as they support and soothe the gut and assist systems and functions to stop overreacting. Here are some specific ingredients I recommend:

  • A raw, species-appropriate diet made up of high-quality lean proteins, healthy fats, bone, organ meats, and antioxidant rich fruits/vegetables  
  • Probiotic supplements like Animotics or Kiki probiotics, for additional gut health support
  • Natural anti inflammatory ingredients, such as ginger and turmeric, omega 3 oils such as krill oil which can be added to their meals
  • Herbal plant sterols and medicinal mushrooms 
  • Specialist immune-boosting and gut health support supplements, such as ProDog’s Boost, Colostrum and Digest

It’s worth mentioning that whilst nutrition plays a major role in canine health, limiting dogs’ exposure to toxins is also critical. Their body’s systems are not equipped to handle such harsh substances, which can cause various functions to fail or behave uncharacteristically. Limiting pharmaceutical treatments, avoiding the use of pesticides in your garden, and utilising natural pest control methods like ProDog’s Repel can all be helpful for preventing autoimmune disease in dogs.

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The holistic approach and its benefits

Holistic veterinary care overview

Holistic essentially means “whole,” which is exactly how holistic veterinarians see their patients. Instead of evaluating symptoms and treating to abate them, these health professionals go through a dog’s entire health history (or as much as is available). They’ll ask questions regarding diet, vaccinations, past or preexisting health issues, and activity level, going as far back as puppyhood when possible.

Though this may seem irrelevant or even excessive, the opposite is actually true: learning a dog’s full history provides valuable information that can prove useful in resolving their health issues. For example, if a dog was weaned too young as a puppy they may not have had access to valuable nutrients in mum’s milk that help to establish a positive gut biome and develop strong immunity [3]. 

Though this might sound like a drop in a bucket, it’s actually a critical piece of information that may allow a holistic vet to help treat potential related issues, such as autoimmune disease in dogs.

Benefits of a holistic approach

Aside from treating the root of the issue instead of simply managing symptoms, there are various other benefits to the holistic veterinary approach. Holistic veterinarians are more likely to be educated on the topic of nutrition, which is one area that conventional vets are unfortunately lacking. This knowledge allows them to form a treatment plan based on gut health, which as I’ve mentioned, is responsible for a wide variety of systems and functions.

Another benefit to the holistic approach is that there is no trading one illness for another. This means that there will be no masking symptoms, compromising one system to appease another, or risking other potential side effects. The holistic approach works with the body’s natural abilities, restoring them to their optimal function and promoting the body’s own healing mechanisms. 

Dr. Katie Woodley is a fantastic resource for holistic vet care. Her Blueprint course allows dog owners to become acquainted with the natural ways of holistic health, empowering them to feel more involved with the care their canine companions are receiving. 

Meanwhile, to discover more about how the immune system works read Dr Katie Woodley’s article, The Basics of Dog Immunity and Nutritional Support.

Autoimmune disease in dogs: approaching canine health holistically

It’s natural to worry when hearing the words “canine autoimmune disease.” While it might have been a death sentence some years ago, this is thankfully no longer always the case. Advances in medical knowledge and technology allow us to find out what’s going on with our dogs more efficiently, and our options for restoring their health are far more comprehensive than they once were.  

Approaching autoimmune disease in dogs from a holistic standpoint is a more effective, long-term solution for canine health. Appropriate nutrition, supplements, and alternative therapies work to restore the body’s natural healing abilities and promote optimal health, all without the risk of negative side effects.

Autoimmune disease in dogs FAQs

How long can a dog live with autoimmune disease?

That largely depends on the specific condition, how long a dog has it before they receive care, and the method in which they’re cared for. Many dogs live long lives with autoimmune disease, and some can even be resolved completely with the right approach.

What triggers autoimmune diseases in dogs?

Autoimmune disease in dogs can be triggered by various factors such as genetics, vaccines and exposure to toxins. However, gut health imbalance is by and large the most common cause of canine autoimmune disease, as 80% of immune cells reside in the digestive system.

How much does it cost to treat an autoimmune disease in a dog?

That depends on the condition and mode of treatment, among other factors. Feeding dogs a species-appropriate diet under the guidance of a canine nutritionist or holistic vet is in the long term, from a dietary perspective, more cost effective, and better for your dog.

What causes immune-mediated disease in dogs?

Issues within the digestive system such as leaky gut, bacterial imbalance, toxins and others are the leading causes of autoimmune disease in dogs. The gut is responsible for communicating with the immune system, so when this line of communication is compromised, issues like autoimmune disease can develop more easily.

Can a dog recover from autoimmune disease?

In many cases, yes. However, utilising immunosuppression and symptom management drugs are not always the best long term solutions. Working with a holistic vet to address  the issue from the root where possible, is in most cases, the best way to resolve autoimmune disease in dogs.

Is autoimmune disease painful in dogs?

It can be, depending on the condition and its severity/progression. Even though they’re experts at hiding it, dogs will likely be feeling some form of discomfort, even if they’re not in excruciating pain.

What is the most common autoimmune disease in dogs?

There are several, with hypothyroidism and IBD being among them. Read the “Common autoimmune diseases in dogs” section for more details.

How long can dogs live with autoimmune hemolytic anaemia?

Hemolytic anaemia can be life threatening, as the body requires a certain number of red blood cells to survive. However, with the right treatment plan from a holistic vet, even this condition can be made manageable.

References

  1. McAtee, B., Cummings, K., Cook, A., Lidbury, J., Heseltine, J., Willard, M. Sept 2017. Opportunistic Invasive Cutaneous Fungal Infections Associated with Administration of Cyclosporine to Dogs with Immune-Mediated Disease. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine;, 31(6):1724-1729. Doi: 10.1111/jvim.14824
  2. Suchodolski, J. Mar 2011. Intestinal Microbiota of Dogs and Cats: a Bigger World than We Thought. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice;, 41(2):261-272. Doi: 10.1016/j.cvsm.2010.12.006
  3. Jalil. B., Christoph, C., Sauthier, T., Schiffrin, E., von der Weid, T., Czarnecki-Maulden, G., Anderson, R. Apr 2003. Supplementation of Food with Enterococcus faecium (SF68) Stimulates Immune Functions in Young Dogs. The Journal of Nutrition;, 133(4):1158-1162. Doi: 10.1093/jn/133.4.1158

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