Systemic Lupus Erythematous (SLE) in Dogs

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Overview of Canine Systemic Lupus Erythematous

Systemic lupus erythematosus is an autoimmune disease in dogs, which is one characterized by a specific antibody or cell-mediated immune response against the body’s own tissues. The reason why autoimmune diseases develop is unknown. Individual genetic make-up may play an important role in their development. Systemic Lupus Erythematous in dogs is commonly referred to by the shortened name of “lupus”. 

Systemic lupus affects many organs and is a life-threatening disease. Because antibodies are produced against a variety of organs, clinical signs vary depending on the organs that are affected. Often, severe damage in the kidneys and blood vessels occurs. In other cases, the red blood cells are attacked and destroyed by the immune system, which causes anemia.

Both people and dogs can develop systemic lupus erythematosus. Some breeds of dogs are at increased risk, such as collies, German shepherds and Shelties.

What to Watch For

Affected dogs with Systemic Lupus Erythematous may be presented with a variety of clinical signs. These may include:

  • Fever
  • Lameness
  • Easy bruising
  • Skin lesions, such as scabs, sores on the paws and inside the mouth, crusted feet, excessive dandruff and hair loss
  • Scabs on the tips of the ears and on the tip of tail
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy and reluctance to walk due to joint pain
  • Enlarged liver (hepatomegaly)
  • Enlarged spleen (splenomegaly)
  • Enlarged lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy)

    Kidneys frequently are affected. The microscopic filters of the kidney (called glomeruli) are affected resulting in loss of large amounts of protein in the urine. Kidney failure also may contribute to the anemia observed in animals with systemic lupus erythematosus.

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    Diagnosis of Systemic Lupus Erythematous (SLE) in Dogs

    Because this disease can manifest itself in a variety of ways, the diagnosis of systemic lupus erythematosus can be very difficult. Your veterinarian will probably recommend the following:

  • Blood tests to check for the presence of liver or kidney damage and to evaluate for anemia and low platelet count
  • Urinalysis to evaluate for kidney damage including excessive protein loss in the urine
  • Antinuclear (ANA) test. The ANA test identifies the presence of antibodies against self-components found in the nucleus of the cell. It is the best test currently available and is positive in 90 percent of dogs with systemic lupus erythematosus.
  • Specific tests like LE cell preparation and antinuclear antibody test. These tests are not 100 percent reliable and may be affected by drug treatment and concurrent illness. The LE cell preparation is positive in approximately half of dogs with systemic lupus and is not performed much any more.
  • Biopsy. If skin lesions are present, a small piece of skin is examined under the microscope to look for pathologic changes typical of this disease.
  • Treatment of Systemic Lupus Erythematous (SLE) in Dogs

    Unfortunately, as many as 40 percent of dogs with systemic lupus erythematosus die within one year of diagnosis, due to either the disease itself or complications of therapy. However, your veterinarian may recommend the following treatment:

  • Immunosuppressive treatment is required. It includes a combination of high doses of glucocorticoids (prednisone) and other immunosuppressive drugs (cyclophosphamide, azathioprine, chlorambucil). Therapy is life-long.
  • Antibiotic treatment. Animals with systemic lupus erythematosus may develop bacterial infections that require antibiotic therapy.
  • Home Care and Prevention

    Dogs receiving glucocorticoids should be monitored carefully for adverse effects. These may include gastrointestinal ulceration resulting in vomiting, diarrhea, dark tarry stools, loss of appetite, increased water consumption, increased urinations and increased appetite.

    Your dog will need frequent evaluation of his blood to insure that cell counts do not decrease too much, because these drugs have the potential to cause bone marrow suppression. Your dog also may need antibiotics to combat secondary bacterial infections.

    Therapy is life-long and has the potential over an extended period of time to result in potentially life-threatening adverse effects.

    There is no prevention for systemic lupus erythematosus.

    In-depth Information on Systemic Lupus Erythematous (SLE) in Dogs

    Diagnosis In-depth

    A definitive diagnosis of systemic lupus erythematosus requires two major signs accompanied by a positive ANA test or one major and two minor signs accompanied by a positive ANA test. A probable diagnosis requires one major or two minor signs with a negative ANA test.

    Major Signs

  • Arthritis involving multiple joints that does not erode the cartilage
  • Muscle inflammation
  • Skin inflammation involving blisters
  • Increased protein levels in the urine
  • Other concurrent immune diseases such as immune mediated hemolytic anemia (low red blood cells), thrombocytopenia (low platelets) and leukopenia (low white blood cells)
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