The immune system is responsible for fighting off germs, bacteria and viruses and it is an animal’s first line of defense. However, when the immune system can’t tell the difference between good and bad cells, antibodies can mistakenly attack healthy cells, leading to a range of health issues, known as autoimmune diseases.  

Autoimmune diseases in dogs can affectt their joints, blood, skin, or the body as a whole. Some diseases can be life-threatening, so it’s essential to identify any unusual changes in a dog’s health in order to ensure timely diagnosis and treatment.

In this post, we will look at some of the most common forms of autoimmune diseases in dogs so that you know what signs and symptoms you should be looking out for in your patients.


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Symptoms of Autoimmune Diseases in Dogs

Although there is a broad variety of autoimmune diseases in dogs, there are a number of common signs and symptoms that could indicate that an animal is experiencing issues with their immune system. Being aware of what you need to look out for could be an important first step in investigating and diagnosing an autoimmune disease in one of your canine patients.

Keep in mind that these are just generalized indicators. You can find more information about some of the most common types of autoimmune diseases in dogs in the following section. 

Here are some of the symptoms you should be watching out for:

  • Lack of energy, weakness, fainting or collapse
  • Weight and/or muscle loss or lack of appetite
  • Heavy or labored breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Fever
  • Pale or discolored gums or mucous membranes in the eyes or skin
  • Jaundice and/or a yellow tinge in the eyes
  • Discolored stool or urine

Common Autoimmune Diseases in Dogs

Generally speaking, autoimmune diseases in dogs include the following conditions:

  • Hypothyroidism
  • Lupus
  • Immune-Mediated Polyarthritis (IMPA)
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
  • Immune-Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA)
  • Immune-Mediated Thrombocytopenia (IMT)
  • Diabetes
  • Myasthenia Gravis
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Addison’s Disease (Hypoadrenocorticism)
  • Bullous Autoimmune Skin Diseases
  • Periodontal disease

Let’s take a look at some of the most common autoimmune diseases in dogs from this list in a bit more detail so that you know what to look out for.



Most canine hypothyroidism results from an autoimmune process known as autoimmune thyroiditis. This is when a dog’s immune system develops antibodies against the cells in its own thyroid gland. As the cells are attacked and destroyed, the remaining cells must work harder to take over. However, obvious signs of this disease do not develop until the thyroid gland is 75% destroyed and can no longer produce enough thyroid hormone. This means it’s important to look out for any subtle indicators that a dog might be developing a thyroid issue, such as:

  • Thickening of the skin
  • Obesity and weight gain without increasing food or appetite
  • Cold and exercise intolerance
  • Mental dullness



There are 2 kinds of lupus. The first type is Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE). This is where a dog’s immune system attacks the skin, blood, nervous system, and major organs. SLE is rare and can be fatal.

The most common symptoms of SLE are:  

  • Fever
  • Anemia
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Seizures
  • Lethargy, muscle pain and stiffness
  • Sores in the mouth
  • Hair loss and skin lesions
  • Lameness that shifts between legs

The second and more common form of lupus is Discoid Lupus Erythematosus (DLE). This form is more superficial and only affects a dog’s skin

Symptoms include:

  • Sores, ulcers or scarring
  • Pale skin on the nose
  • Bacterial infections
  • Itching and scratching
  • Redness on the face, nose and lips 
  • Flaky or scaly skin


Diabetes is one of the most common autoimmune diseases in dogs. Type 1 diabetes occurs when the immune system attacks the pancreas and destroys the insulin-producing cells. This leaves the pancreas unable to create insulin, resulting in the following symptoms:

  • Frequent urination
  • Hunger as the dog’s cells demand glucose
  • Weight loss as the body burns off tissue to produce glucose
  • Vomiting, especially if the dog develops pancreatitis
  • Tiredness, lethargy and weakness

Rheumatoid Arthritis

This is a chronic inflammation of the lining of the joints, which can lead to pain and swelling. It occurs when the immune system attacks the immunoglobulin G that regulates the circulatory system. 

Common symptoms include:

  • Swelling of the joints and/or restricted joint movement
  • Lameness and difficulty walking
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Dislocated joints
  • A sound of cracking or grating when joints are moved


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Causes of Autoimmune Diseases in Dogs

The exact cause of autoimmune diseases in dogs is not fully understood. However, the general consensus is that genetics and/or environmental pollutants play a role. Other influential factors might include cancers, infections, tick-borne diseases, and medication side effects. 

Genetic Predisposition

Certain breeds of dogs do appear to be genetically predisposed to autoimmune diseases. For example, Italian Greyhounds have a greater chance of developing immune-mediated polyarthritis, and Dobermans appear to be sensitive to certain drugs that have been known to trigger autoimmune diseases.   


Antibiotics such as sulfa-containing drugs, cephalosporins, and penicillin might lead to a hypersensitivity reaction that can lead to an autoimmune disease.


Tick-borne infections like Ehrlichia, Anaplasma, Mycoplasma, Babesia, and Borrelia (Lyme) are well known to lead to autoimmune diseases. Other chronic infections like heart valve infections and vertebral (spinal cord) infections can also trigger them.


Round-cell cancers such as lymphoma, leukemia, histiocytic sarcoma, or multiple myeloma are associated with autoimmune diseases. 

Leaky Gut Syndrome

Factors like poor diet, toxins, overuse of pharmaceuticals, and stress can lead to inflammation that causes leaky gut in dogs. When a leaky gut develops, the gut lining becomes more permeable and allows toxins, allergens, bacteria and yeast into the bloodstream. This can lead to a range of chronic diseases, such as arthritis, allergies, digestive issues, thyroid and other organ disorders. 


Environmental factors like exposure to chemicals and toxins have also been linked to autoimmune diseases in dogs. For example, heavy metals, PCBs, and perfluorinated compounds (PFCs or PFOA) can affect antibody production and lead to immunosuppression. This dysregulation can lead to adverse changes in immune functions, increasing the susceptibility to infections and cancer, as well as favoring the development of autoimmune diseases.  

How to Avoid Autoimmune Disease In Dogs

There are a number of things you can advise pet owners to do to help them minimize the chances of their pet developing an autoimmune disease. Generally speaking, though, the best advice you can give is that they do everything possible to ensure their dog is as healthy as possible so that their immune system is strong and functions as it should.

Specifically, the best advice for avoiding autoimmune diseases in dogs includes:

  • Feed them a whole food, raw meat diet with quality proteins and healthy fats.  
  • Include probiotics in the animal’s diet to generate good bacteria in their gut and maintain a healthy immune response. Also include other foods that support immunity, such as medicinal mushrooms and omega-3 fatty acids. 
  • Limit a dog’s exposure to chemicals and toxins. Minimize medications and avoid pesticides and chemical products in the home.
  • Regular exercise stimulates healthy blood flow and deep breathing which both support the immune system. Regular outings and time spent in nature also help to relax dogs and reduce stress levels, helping them develop and maintain a healthy immune system.


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