What is Autoimmune Skin Disease?
The most common autoimmune skin disease in cats is called Pemphigus Complex. With this condition, blisters of varying sizes form all over the body. The blisters ulcerate, ooze, and eventually scab over. The most common areas for these blisters to occur is around the eyes, ears, bridge of the nose, foot pads and toenail beds. This condition can appear suddenly.
Bullous Pemphigoid is another skin disease that can occur in cats. A large sac filled with clear fluid may form around the mouth, armpits or groin. After bursting, the sac turns into an itchy, red welt. Lupus can also cause autoimmune skin disease. It tends to mimic other diseases. A butterfly-shaped lesion may form on the nose if lupus is present.
When disorders of the immune system are present, sometimes the antibodies in the body start to attack normal skin cells instead of abnormal foreign cells. Left untreated, these autoimmune skin disorders can pose a threat to the entire body and have the potential to become fatal. These skin problems can manifest in a number of different autoimmune conditions.
Symptoms of Autoimmune Skin Disease in Cats
Autoimmune skin diseases may develop all over the face, neck, paw pads, claw folds, groin and genitals of the cat. They range in severity and can be acute or chronic issues. Symptoms are as follows:
- Skin erosion
- Crusting or scabbing
- Symmetrical lesions
- Lymph node disease
- Elevated rectal temperature
Causes of Autoimmune Skin Disease in Cats
The cause of any autoimmune disorder is not fully understood. With most autoimmune diseases, earlier diagnosis is preferable for treating symptoms. All known causes are listed below:
- Genetic predisposition
- Environmental pollutants
- Long-term medication use
- Chronic skin allergies
- Hormonal issues
- UV exposure
Diagnosis of Autoimmune Skin Disease in Cats
At a veterinary appointment, you will be asked to provide your cat’s full medical history. A physical examination will be completed. Blood work will be collected, including a complete blood count and a biochemical profile. This will reveal any secondary health issues that may interfere with treatment. A confirmed diagnosis is necessary prior to treatment, as the medications for autoimmune disease have harsh side effects.
To complete a diagnosis of autoimmune skin disease, a biopsy of the affected skin tissue is needed. A small, round portion of skin called a “punch biopsy” is removed from the cat. Sometimes only local anesthetic is needed to collect the tissue, however, if it is on the face or if the cat is extremely anxious, a general anesthetic will be administered. The sample of tissue is then sent to a veterinary pathologist for examination and diagnosis.
Treatment of Autoimmune Skin Disease in Cats
Autoimmune conditions can become life threatening to a cat. Treatment can restore the quality of life and increase the lifespan of a cat suffering from autoimmune skin disease. Immunosuppression
Medication is often prescribed to reduce the effectiveness of the immune system. Prednisolone or dexamethasone may be prescribed in extreme cases. Chlorambucil or cyclosporine are chosen for medium level occurrences. In mild cases, glucocorticoid may be prescribed. These prescriptions are generally administered at high doses for 2-8 weeks and then adjusted to a lesser amount.
If secondary bacterial infections are present in the skin lesions, antibiotics will be prescribed for two to four weeks.
Medical baths can be an effective way to treat and clean open ulcers on the cat. Baths may also soothe the pain of the open sores, bringing some relief to the cat.
Recovery of Autoimmune Skin Disease in Cats
While prognosis is linked to the specific diagnosis and severity of the condition, most cats enjoy a long life with autoimmune skin disease. Treatment will be ongoing, as there is no cure. Regular checkups are necessary to adjust medication dosage to prevent or minimize damage to the cat’s internal organs.
Symptoms and side effects require constant monitoring. Blood work and urinalysis at regular vet appointments will be needed to monitor overall health and the function of the liver and kidneys. With extensive treatment, autoimmune skin disease can be controlled in most cases. In approximately 13% of cats with these diseases, euthanasia is eventually necessary due to the side effects of treatments harming the body.
Autoimmune Skin Disease Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
One of my feral cats feet bleed from Nov to April. This is the second year. He is only 3. He also is very afraid of everything. I can get without a foot of him. I was able to get antibiotics into him last spring (I have been trying to trap him for 2 years!) and it either worked or it cleared up. It started all over again this Nov. His paws look normal, but he walks very slowly and gingerly and I see the blood from his paw prints in the feeding crates.
The problem with feral cats is that there is no history and we are not sure what they get up to during the day. It is possible that he has stood (again) in a chemical irritant (especially if you’re near an industrial area or farm) or that he is licking the area excessively leading to the bleeding. Without an examination and cleaning, it is hard to say for sure the cause; you could try the same treatment as last year and continue to try to trap him. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM
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