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What is Autoimmune Skin Disease?

Autoimmune disease can affect a single bodily system or it can affect a number of them, attacking the body’s normal, healthy tissue. Autoimmune diseases can affect not only the skin but also nerves, connective tissue, muscles, red blood cells, the endocrine system and the digestive system.

Dogs who suffer from autoimmune diseases should only be vaccinated under some very specific circumstances and conditions.

An autoimmune skin disease is the result of an immune system gone awry.  Instead of attacking foreign skin cells, it turns on itself and attacks the skin’s own healthy cells.

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Symptoms of Autoimmune Skin Disease in Dogs

Autoimmune skin diseases are fairly uncommon in dogs. Here are some of the symptoms one might see in a canine suffering from an autoimmune skin disease:

  • Blisters (both large and small) in the mouth, on the eyelids, nostrils, lips and anus
  • Crusty scabs around eyes, ears, footpads, groin and bridge of the nose
  • Redness, crustiness, scaliness and hair loss on the nose which create painful ulcers
  • Large and itchy welts or ulcers can sometimes show up before or during the formation of blisters
  • Fluctuating fever which is unresponsive to antibiotic treatments
  • Lameness of various types
  • Blood abnormalities
  • Dermatitis which is symmetrical
  • Loss of skin pigment around the nose, as well as frequently around the eyes, lips, ears and genitals


There are several autoimmune skin diseases which are commonly found in dogs:

  • Pemphigus Complex - A group of five autoimmune skin diseases which present with large and painful vesicles or blisters in the mouth, eyelids, lips, nostrils and anus
  • Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) - Mimics many other diseases, having symptoms of fluctuating fevers which are unresponsive to antibiotics, lameness and blood disorders (most common in dogs but rare in cats)
  • Discoid Lupus Erythematosus (DLE) - Another common name for this disease is “Collie nose” which is more common in dogs and rare in cats and is  characterized by loss of pigment around nose but also can affect the skin around the eyes, ears, lips and genitals of dogs

Causes of Autoimmune Skin Disease in Dogs

The cause of autoimmune skin disease in dogs is rooted in the immune system’s ability to recognize its own cells and tissues.  There is ongoing research into how this malfunctioning of the immune system happens but nothing definitive has been determined.  This is what we do know about the suspected causes:

  • Genetics - If your canine family member has a parent or littermate who has suffered or is currently suffering from autoimmune skin disease, then monitoring your pet more closely would be prudent
  • Infectious agents are thought by some researchers to be part of an initiating factor in SLE
  • Breed specific occurrences - Some canine breeds seem to represent a higher rate of occurrence than others; for example, Poodles and German Shepherds seem predisposed to SLE 
  • Some veterinary professionals feel that UV exposure may have a part in the development of autoimmune skin disease

Diagnosis of Autoimmune Skin Disease in Dogs

Since several of the most common autoimmune skin diseases in dogs can mimic other diseases, the diagnosis of your pet’s malady will be a bit on the challenging side.  The vet will need a complete history from you that is as detailed as possible about the potential congenital side of the skin disease from which your pet is suffering.  If you know anything about your canine family member’s parents or littermates in regard to any of the autoimmune skin diseases listed above, be sure to be prepared to give that information to your vet.  

He will also need information about dietary regimens, husbandry habits (grooming, bathing) and the bathing and grooming products used.  He will need to know where your pet has been (geographic locations, was he in close contact with other dogs or animals).  Household cleaning products could also be contributing to skin diseases if there is an allergic situation at the root.

Your vet will perform a physical examination and will likely need to do some blood work and take tissue samples from the diseased areas for microscopic laboratory evaluation.

Treatment of Autoimmune Skin Disease in Dogs

If your veterinary professional finds that your pet is suffering from an autoimmune skin disease, he will likely need to treat your pet with a medication which will suppress the reaction of the immune system.  Generally, prednisone or dexamethasone are usually enough to deal with the skin outbreak.  However, if these drugs are not sufficient, then some dogs need drugs which are stronger, like azathioprine, chlorambucil, or oral cyclosporine to suppress the immune system enough to heal the skin.  

If your vet finds a bacterial component to the infection or disease, he will also need to treat that aspect of the autoimmune skin disease.  In these cases, you should expect antibiotics to be administered either orally or injected and medicated baths or dips.  Your vet will guide you in the appropriate course of treatment.  

You should expect that your pet will need frequent follow ups by your vet to assure that the treatment options chosen are working appropriately.  There will also be conditions which you will need to watch for as secondary infections and issues can develop as a result of the immunosuppressant therapy being administered.

Recovery of Autoimmune Skin Disease in Dogs

The bottom line to the recovery and management of your pet’s autoimmune skin disease lies in the specific diagnosis obtained by your vet and the severity of the condition.  It is important to understand that this could be a potentially life-threatening situation for your canine family member.  Having said that, you should also expect that there will be ongoing, extensive follow up diagnostic testing, care and treatment.  An autoimmune skin disease is only rarely curable but it is, however, manageable if the appropriate medication and care are provided.

Autoimmune Skin Disease Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

German Shepherd
7 Years
Moderate condition
0 found helpful
Moderate condition

Has Symptoms


Can I give Apoquil to a dog with autoimmune disease? We have changed his food and he is scratching and symptoms seem to have gotten worse instead of better. He has sores on his head and face, the skin on his nose is peeling off. One of his foot pads is crusty and discolored. Looks like his genitals are inflamed also.

Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
3320 Recommendations
Apoquel (oclacitinib) is indicated for the treatment of canine atopic dermatitis, any use outside of the original scope of treatment would be down to the prescribing Veterinarian. Apoquel isn’t an immunosuppressant and has a very different mechanism of action. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

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Great dane lab mix
6 Years
Moderate condition
0 found helpful
Moderate condition

Has Symptoms


Are there ways to lean and possibly dry up the oozing from lupus skin lesions? My dog gets them from too much sun exposure. The side of his face stays moist and smelly until the flareup passes. He doesn’t have any i terest in eating either but we haven’t noticed any oa lesions.

Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
3320 Recommendations
The management of lupus (including the skin lesions) is a fine balance in finding what works best for Frosty; systemic and topical treatment should be tried in various combinations to see what is most effective for him, however avoiding sun exposure would be the best course of action regardless. Bathe the lesions and topical ointments may help but you should discuss with your Veterinarian based on the treatment Frosty is currently receiving. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

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German Shepard Mix
4 Years
Serious condition
0 found helpful
Serious condition

Has Symptoms

Ear Itching
Licking at Genitals
Hair Loss
itchy skin
Crusty skin

Medication Used

Clindamycin Hydrochloride

Are there any autoimmune dieseases that cause skin issues and constant infections (Ear and UTI) all over the body? My dog has had skin problems for over four years, we have tried every food on the market, cytopoint injections, apoquel 16mg for 2 years, immunotherapy, antibiotics, skin testing etc. She gets flakey, crusty red skin all over her body. The big areas seem to be the hips, tail, and underbelly. I am out of options, we have seen all the specialist there are and we are lost. My last ditch effort is to believe it might be an autoimmune disease.

Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
3320 Recommendations
Autoimmune diseases may cause a dog to scratch and get secondary skin infections but if I cannot give you any assurances that is the cause; I am sure that your Veterinarian or a Specialist would have diagnosed an autoimmune disease by now if that was the cause. It may be worth visiting a veterinary school for an opinion if there has been no success so far. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

I am trying to submit a question but your site thinks it is too vague. It is actually very detailed. How tdo I make your question section work??

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