Lupus in Dogs

There are two main forms of canine (dog) lupus similar to in humans: discoid lupus (DLE) and systemic lupus (SLE), both can cause damage to various organs and can be fatal without treatment.

Some breeds are predisposed to developing SLE. They tend to be medium to large dogs and include:

• Alaskan Malamutes

• Chow Chows

• German Shorthaired Pointers

• Brittany Spaniels

• Afghan Hounds

• Irish setters

• German Shepherds

• Shetland Sheepdogs

• Collies

• Beagles

• Poodles

• Siberian Huskies

The mean age of onset is 5 to 6 years, but SLE has been reported in dogs a young as 6 months of age, gender does not play a role

What happens when a dog develops SLE?

Signs of SLE can occur acutely (suddenly) or chronically (slowly and subtly over time). A dog’s symptoms will depend upon where in the body the immune system is attacking the tissues, for example the skin or the joints. The signs of SLE may wax and wane over time – the dog may get better, then worse, then better again. There may be more signs as SLE progresses.

Specific signs of SLE may include any or all of the following:

  • Shifting leg lameness (tas in cats, the most common sign of this disease).

  • Arthritis; polyarthritis (swollen, painful joints; non-septic; non-erosive; common)

  • Stiff, stilted gait

  • Lethargy

  • Depression

  • Loss of appetite

  • Anemia (hemolytic); other bleeding problems

  • Skin lesions (redness; depigmentation; sores; pustules; vesicles/blisters), especially on the muzzle and in other areas exposed to sunlight. Any types of sores can also lead to bacterial infection, so you’ll want to get it checked out as soon as possible.

  • Secondary bacterial infections (pyoderma; common contributor to death)

  • Pain

  • Muscle wasting (atrophy)

  • Fever of unknown origin (fluctuating)

  • Ulcers at mucocutaneous junctions (areas where the skin meets mucous membranes, like the lips)

  • Pale gums and other mucous membranes

  • Hair loss (alopecia) or thinning hair

  • Thickened foot pads

  • Ulcerated foot pads

  • Enlarged lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy)

  • Enlarged liver (hepatomegaly)

  • Enlarged spleen (splenomegaly)

  • Increased thirst

  • Increased water intake (polydipsia)

  • Increased urination (polyuria)

  • Neurological abnormalities (highly variable)

  • Seizures

The symptoms can occur suddenly or slowly and can wax and wane over time. Often, the signs of SLE follow a pattern. Owners may notice their dog limping on a front leg, then returning to normal. Weeks or even months later, the same dog might begin to limp on a back leg, or on the other front leg. This sporadic lameness is usually caused by swollen, painful joints.

Symptoms of DLE

Discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) usually affects the face, nose, lips, mouth, ears, or areas around the eyes. Rarely, it can cause symptoms in the feet or genitals. Keep an eye out for the following.

  • Pale skin on the bridge of the nose

  • Redness of the skin, especially the nose, lips, and face

  • Scaly, flaky, or crusty skin

  • Sores or ulcers

  • Scarring

  • Pain at the affected sites

  • Itchiness or scratching at affected areas

  • Bacterial infections

Diagnosing Lupus in Dogs

You’ll need to see your vet for a proper diagnosis of either form of lupus in your dog. The symptoms of both types of lupus in dogs can make it difficult for it to be diagnosed as. Similar to humans, it mimics other conditions.

DLE is usually the easier of the 2 types of lupus to diagnose, it’s normally based on a review of the history and assessment of the symptoms. Definitive diagnosis is achieved with a biopsy of affected skin, which can be tricky given the sensitive areas affected around the face. Biopsies to diagnose DLE are usually performed under general anaesthesia and usually require stitches.

SLE symptoms are similar to those found in cases of cancer, kidney disease, or poor reaction to medications. Your vet can run blood tests to cancel out other types of diseases and distinguish lupus as the diagnosis. Keep a lrecord of all the symptoms your dog has, as in humans they will assist the vet with a diagnosis. One way is to perform an antinuclear antibodies (ANA) test. If your dog tests positive for this, as in humans it can be the differentiating factor between lupus and other diseases.

How is SLE treated in dogs?

Most of the time, dogs with SLE are treated as outpatients, but if the dog’s immune system is attacking her red blood cells, a short time in hospital may be required. Treatment will depend upon which body systems are affected.

If the joints are inflamed, then rest and restricted activity is critical. If the skin is sensitized to UV radiation, then protection from the sun will help prevent progression of skin lesions. If the kidneys are affected and compromised, then a modified, high-quality protein diet will be recommended by your vet.

There are several medications that may be used to manage SLE. You will recognise the names as they are also used to treat humans. Corticosteroids (e.g. prednisone) are used to reduce inflammation and to help suppress the abnormal immune system activity associated with SLE. There are certain chemotherapeutic agents that may be used when prednisone is inadequate alone. Another immune-system suppressing medication that may be prescribed is cyclosporine.

Also, it’s best to limit a dog’s exposure to sunlight, as this only aggravates symptoms. Protect your dog by keeping him out of the sun as much as possible, especially during the highest peaks of the day. Chemotherapy might also be recommended to help treat pain and suppress abnormal responses of the immune system.

How is DLE treated in dogs?

DLE is the less severe of the 2 types of lupus and fairly easy to treat, your vet will focus on healing and controlling any sores, lesions, or ulcers that may appear.

Topical steroids are often use to suppress the immune system response and reduce inflammation. Prednisone or other oral steroids might be given until the condition is under control. Antibiotics and supplements, including Vitamins B and E and Omega-3 fatty acids, may also be given.

Exposure to ultraviolet light, including sunlight, should be limited as this worsens the condition. If this cannot be avoided, you can apply a pet-safe sunscreen.

What is the outlook/prognosis?

The prognosis for DLE is usually good, and disease usually remains limited to small areas of the skin. Some cases can follow a more severe course, requiring more powerful drugs to control the disease.

As in lupus with humans, there is no cure and the treatments in both cases will have to continue for the rest of the dogs life.

george bush and millie.jpg


Perhaps the most famous dog with discoid lupus was Millie, owned by George & Barbara Bush.

The English Springer Spaniel “wrote” Millie’s Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush, which reached the top spot on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list in 1992.

Millie died of pneumonia in 1997 at age 12


bak and handler.jpg

Here’s the story of Bak, a brave K9 dog who served 3 years with Fort Worth Police as told by his owner Kari. Sadly Bak passed away on 23rd April 2019.

Bak was a 4 almost 5 year old German Shepherd from Slovakia. He presented with swelling in the back Hock which then led to swelling in the front left leg and very high fever. His story is very unique as Bak’s lupus came on fast and hard.

We started diagnostics with simple chemistry and fully body x-rays which showed enlarged spleen and low blood counts. This led our doctors to further testing. Tick panels all came back negative.

Next was a joint tap, then ANA testing. Joint tap came back Suppurative Arthritis and ANA came back positive. We then did a Urine protein creatine ratio which case back with 4 plus protein in his urine. With all of Bak’s signs and symptoms and lab work led us to the diagnosis of lupus.

Bak unfortunately also ended up with an antibiotic resistant staph infection in his prostate MRPS. He began to respond to high dose azathioprine and steroids but the prostate infection was just too much and Bak went septic.

Fort Worth Police Department and my family lost a valuable officer and my family lost our baby boy, my husband lost his best friend. I hope this story helps anyone get diagnose sooner and or find a cure I am honored to share about our boy Bak.

A huge thank you to Keri and Fort Worth Police Department for sharing this very sad story.