Can Dogs Get Lupus?

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Ironically enough the word lupus, which means “wolf” in latin, was first used to describe a disease in humans, which is also commonly found in canines. As early as the 13th century, the name was applied to a disease that was characterized by facial lesions in humans that resembled “wolf bites”. The name stuck through the centuries, and lupus erythematosus, the latter half of the name meaning “red” (which describes the red lesions also characteristic of the disease), is the name used for the autoimmune disorder that causes one's immune system to attack healthy tissue, which results in red welts and lesions on the face

Can Dogs Get Lupus?

YES!

Dogs are affected by several types of lupus, the most common being discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). The first is a disease of the basal cell layer of the skin, triggered by exposure to ultraviolet light. It is not uncommon in dogs, and is referred to by the common name “Collie nose” or nasal solar dermatitis, and affects the skin around the face, nose, skin around the eyes, ears, lips, mouth, and sometimes the feet and genitals of dogs. A more serious disease, SLE, causes the body to attack itself from the inside out, and targets not only the skin, but also joints and internal organs such as the kidneys, lungs, and heart.

Does My Dog Have Lupus?

Lupus diseases that afflict dogs are of differing severity, but all are autoimmune diseases that cause damage to healthy tissues.

The most common, and fortunately the least serious, is. see discoid lupus erythematosus, or DLE. Symptoms of DLE primarily affect skin on the face, especially on the bridge of the nose, and symptoms include:

  • Hair loss, especially on the bridge of the nose, lips, mouth, eye area, and ears

  • Skin scaling, crusting, and flaking

  • Skin lesions, ulcerations, and sores

  • Skin redness

  • Loss of pigmentation

  • Pain and itchiness

  • Secondary bacterial infections from scratching to relieve itchiness and pain
     

Systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE, is less common, but more serious. It is an immune mediated disease, where the body forms antibodies against its own healthy tissues, and can attack any part of the body, especially joint and vital organ systems.

The symptoms of the more serious SLE are:

  • Lameness

  • Swollen joints, arthritis

  • Thickened foot pads

  • Weakness

  • Lethargy

  • Loss of appetite

  • Pain

  • Bacterial infections

  • Skin lesions, exceptionally on face

  • Anemia

  • Muscle degeneration

  • Sudden onset of fever

  • Hair loss

  • Thickened foot pads

  • Enlarged internal organs

  • Thirst

  • Increased urination

  • Neurological symptoms

SLE symptoms may appear and disappear.

In addition, other forms of lupus that afflict dogs include lupoid dermatosis, which affects German Shorthaired pointers, and lupoid onychodystrophy, which causes disorder in your dog’s feet and loss of their nails.

Lupus seems to have a genetic, causal link and is more common in certain breeds. DLE appears to be more common in:

  • Collies

  • German shepherds

  • Huskies

  • Shelties

  • German shorthaired pointers

  • Brittany spaniels

  • Chows

SLE is more common in:

  • German shepherds

  • Shelties

  • Collies

  • Old English sheepdogs

  • Afghan hounds

  • Beagles

  • Irish Setters

  • Poodles

Besides a genetic contribution, viruses, drug reactions, stress, and prolonged exposure to sunlight may also play factors in causing or triggering lupus reactions.


Diagnosis of lupus can be difficult, as symptoms are similar to a variety of other disorders that need to be ruled out prior to lupus diagnosis. DLE is usually easier to diagnose, due to the characteristic pigmentation on the nose which is a telltale sign of the disorder. Skin biopsies may be helpful in diagnosing DLE. SLE will be diagnosed based on symptoms, ruling out other disorders and a number of test results including urine, blood, skin biopsies and antibody tests.

How Do I Treat My Dog’s Lupus?

Lupus is not curable, however, symptoms can be treated and managed. Most cases of lupus are treated with immune suppressing drugs, since lupus is a disease in which the immune system has begun to attack healthy tissues. Before initiating this treatment, it is important to make sure that your dog does not have any infections, because suppressing their immune system when an infection is present would not allow the dog to defend itself from the infectious agents.

Since ultraviolet rays seem to trigger lupus, sheltering your dog from the sun and using sunscreens that do not contain zinc oxide, which is toxic to dogs, may help reduce symptoms.

DLE treatment may also involve topical and systemic medication. Topical preparations with vitamin E or steroids may prove helpful. If secondary infections are present antibiotics may be required.

SLE treatment involves relieving pain, and symptoms, and preventing organ failure. Because the disease goes in and out of remission, treatment may not be necessary at all times, especially when symptoms are not present. Several medications can help with SLE symptoms including:

  • Corticosteroids for suppressing the immune system

  • NSAIDS for inflammation

  • Chemotherapeutic medications for immunosuppression

  • Dietary changes to reduce protein in the diet


Corticosteroids and NSAIDS are usually not given together due to concerns with compromise of gastrointestinal functioning. Antibiotics may be necessary if infection is present.

Recovery for dogs with DLE is good and the disease is not considered life-threatening. Prognosis for dogs with SLE is more guarded, as the disease usually progresses to a point where treatment is no longer effective, and euthanasia may need to be considered. If SLE symptoms become acute, hospitalization and supportive care may be required. Continuous monitoring of SLE is required from pet owners and veterinarians to manage the disorder and treat appropriately.

How is Lupus Similar in Dogs and Humans?

In dogs and humans, lupus is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks itself, causing damage to healthy tissues. Other similarities include:

  • Both DLE and SLE occur in dogs and people

  • Ultraviolet light seems to trigger onset

  • Genetic factors are thought to be a contributing factor

  • There is no cure, but management of symptoms is the main goal of treatment

  • Treatment with immunosuppressive drugs may be effective at managing the disease

How is Lupus Different in Dogs, Humans, and Other Animals?

Some differences in lupus conditions between dogs and people exist.

  • DLE in dogs seems to involve plasma cells rather that T lymphocytes

  • DLE is more common in dogs than in other species

  • In cats, lupus is a relatively rare and perhaps an underdiagnosed disease.

Case Study

A 6-year-old border collie, used for working purposes on a farm, was observed by his owners to be scratching at his nose excessively. Upon examination, the owner noticed red, flaky skin on the bridge of his dog's nose. Because the dog appeared healthy otherwise, the initial symptoms were dismissed as a scrape or minor injury, but soon the constant scratching of the dog caused open sores and infection on the dog's nose. His owner pointed him out to the vet the next time the veterinarian was onsite to check cattle. The veterinarian immediately recognized telltale signs of DLE in the border collie and recommended he come in for some tests. After several tests were conducted to rule out other diseases, and the secondary infections were treated with antibiotics, the veterinarian prescribed topical steroids to address the flaking sores on the dog's nose, and suggested the collie be given some time out of the sun. The symptoms cleared up and the farmer started using sunscreen on his dog's nose to help prevent further flare ups.