What to Know About Lupus in Dogs

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on December 05, 2021
3 min read

Lupus is a serious autoimmune disease in dogs. It causes the dog's immune system to attack its tissues on a cellular level. Humans can also contract this disease; however, lupus often causes life-threatening symptoms in dogs. There are two types of lupus: discoid erythematosus (DLE) and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). 

Systemic lupus in dogs affects various parts of the body. It also mimics the symptoms of other diseases. That is why it is difficult to diagnose your dog for lupus. 

SLE severely affects the internal tissues in dogs. Since it attacks the internal tissues, multiple bodily systems and functions are affected. For example, in some dogs, the immune system attacks organs, while it can affect the skin and glands in others.

Discoid lupus in dogs is also known as facial or cutaneous lupus erythematosus. Various types of DLE affect the nasal planum, mucous membrane, gums, or skin in dogs. As a result, dogs develop skin crusting and scabbing. Scabbing is common around the nose.

Since the immune system attacks a layer of cells within the skin, it causes the skin's surface to slough. As a result, skin pigmentation is affected. DLE is common in hot and sunny climates, where UV light makes the condition worse.

Systemic lupus symptoms in dogs depend on the tissue being affected. Signs of SLE include:

  • Skin redness and altered pigmentation
  • Skin ulceration
  • Lethargy
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Muscle pain 
  • Enlarged liver 
  • Enlarged spleen 

DLE affects the skin on the face, especially around the nose. Common symptoms of DLE include:

  • Bacterial infections in the affected area
  • Itchiness
  • Flaky skin
  • Scabs
  • Scarring
  • Depigmentation 
  • Pain in the infected area
  • Redness 
  • Ulcers 
  • Erosion 

Causes of lupus in dogs include genetic factors, immunologic disorders, and environmental factors. Environmental factors such as ultraviolet light and cigarette smoke trigger or worsen DLE. Stress may also worsen lupus.

Some dog breeds are more prone to getting the disease. They include German Shepherds, Brittanys, Alaskan Malamutes, Siberian husky, Chow Chows, and Shetland sheepdogs.

If the dog's immune system attacks the red blood cells, immediate hospitalization is required. Treatment of SLE depends upon the system of the body being infected, but administration of anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive medications will always be necessary. For example, if dogs with lupus have inflammation in their joints, restricted activity becomes critical. However, anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressants will almost always be needed.

If the dog experiences skin sensitivity from the sun, treatment includes protection from the sun to prevent skin lesions.

In severe cases, SLE affects the kidneys. Your vet may prescribe medication and a high-quality diet.

Since every dog reacts differently to medicines, your vet may give different combinations of medications to see what works best for your dog.

Some dogs respond well to topical treatments. The topical medicines include ointments such as tacrolimus or topical steroid creams. For topical treatment, you have to apply the ointment for ten minutes. Make sure that your pet does not lick it off.

Some dogs also require systemic medications such as a combination of an antibiotic with niacinamide: for example, tetracycline with niacinamide. If a dog does not respond well to these medicines, it may need a stronger immune suppressant, such as cyclosporine.

Low doses of steroids can also work well. Your vet will examine your dog and check what combination of medicine works best. Sometimes, systemic therapy is combined with a topical treatment for best results.

Lupus in dogs requires long-term treatment. For DLE, the treatment should continue until all the lesions disappear. Also, do not discontinue treatment even if the inflammation is reduced, because it takes longer to treat the lesions.

Once the lesions are gone, the vet will taper off the dog's medication, gradually lowering the dose to prevent flare-ups.

SLE in dogs is progressive. The diagnosis requires long-term treatment to decrease the dog's immune response. When your dog takes immune suppressants, these have various side effects.

It is also vital that you remember to protect your dog from sunlight and other environmental factors that worsen lupus symptoms. Dogs with lupus should stay indoors during the day to minimize sun exposure.