Just like any other autoimmune disorder, Systemic Lupus Erythematous (SLE) will attack your dog’s body from the inside out. Immune cells start targeting and fighting molecules they weren’t supposed to, and the result is a multisystemic disease that affects several body parts. As a responsible pet owner it is your job to educate yourself on Systemic Lupus Erythematous in dogs and work with your veterinarian to create the best treatment plan for your dog.
There is not much you can do to prevent your dog from getting SLE, mainly because its causes are still not known. From viral infections to exposure to environmental threats, several hypothesis have been proposed (1), but so far, they all failed to unravel the true causes behind the appearance of Systemic Lupus Erythematous in dogs.
SLE in dogs is very similar to SLE in humans (2). The most common symptoms associated with this disease are dog's lameness and fever. However, there are many other signs associated with SLE as well. The signs that your dog will exhibit will vary based on which organ system the antibodies are attacking.
SLE can be especially difficult to diagnose because the symptoms can fluctuate in severity. By the time you recognize a symptom and get your dog in to see the vet, it may have subsided. A few days later, the same symptom may arise again.
Signs of Systematic Lupus Erythematous in dogs can start with a loss of pigmentation on the lips and nose and then progress to scarring and ulcerations on the face and ears. Your veterinarian will likely need to do a skin biopsy to diagnose the condition.
What Is Systemic Lupus Erythematous in Dogs?
Genetic predisposition to Systematic Lupus Erythematous
What is known to researchers today is that there is a genetic predisposition (3) among dogs to develop SLE, thus some breeds are more likely to get the disease.
German Shepherds, English Cocker Spaniels and Old English Sheepdogs seem to be more prone to develop lupus (4) than other breeds. In addition, female dogs appear to have a higher predisposition (5) for the disease than their male counterparts.
That said, researchers argue that these conclusions cannot be taken too seriously, since canine research often lacks proper representability. For example, German Shepherds are overrepresented in dog studies, which makes it difficult to extrapolate researchers' results into other breeds.
Similarly, conclusions are often made with no regards to whether the dog is neutered or intact, and as we know, neutering a dog can have those effects. Thus, if you happen to have a female German Shepherd, don’t get overly concerned about genetic the potential predispositions to SLE.
Self-attacking Antibodies in Dogs
In opposition to what happens in discoid lupus (where only the skin of the dog is affected), systemic lupus affects several parts of your dog’s body. The body produces antibodies that will attach to proteins in the nucleus of cells.
By sticking to those proteins, antibodies (or anti-nuclear antibodies (ANA)) trigger an aggregation of immune cells (6, PDF).
Accumulation of immune cells in the tissue leads to damage and hypersensitivity in dogs, which is the main cause of joint’s disorders like canine arthritis.
The skin may also be affected in SLE. Symptoms can range from depigmentation around the nose, mouth and abdomen, to dermatitis. Other clinical signs include an increased sensibility to light, ulcers in the mouth and stomach, anemia or, rarely, behavioral and psychological changes.
Treatments for SLE
There aren’t many options on the market when it comes to SLE treatment for dogs.
Your veterinarian will probably prescribe your pet glucocorticoids combined with cytotoxic drugs. In more extreme cases, other treatments like plasmapheresis, which consists of the removal of the components of the plasma of your dog's blood, have proven to be effective.
Studies have found that long-term remissions of up to 9 years are possible (7) in about half of the cases when treated with levamisole. In the end, when symptoms are observed, it's important to discuss this with your veterinarian to rule out all other diseases, and if SLE is confirmed, the action plan will be discussed and implemented.
There are no proven effective home treatments for dogs with SLE.