The Pet Corner: Autoimmune diseases aer tough to fight

Autoimmune diseases are, without a doubt, some of the strangest diseases that pets and humans encounter.

Autoimmune diseases are conditions where the body actually attacks and partially destroys itself. The body’s immune system, which normally fights disease, causes the disease by mounting a battle against its own body.

There are several different types of autoimmune diseases in people and pets. Lupus is one  which affects both humans and pets. The specific type of autoimmune disease affecting a patient determines the severity and portion of the body affected.

Some autoimmune diseases aren’t necessarily life threatening by causing primarily skin lesions. One type of Lupus and another disease known as Pemphigus typically causes skin lesions on the nose, muzzle and lips of affected dogs.

Many autoimmune diseases are life threatening and usually difficult to treat. These diseases may be controlled with the proper medication, but never cured.

Autoimmune hemolytic anemia is probably the most common type of autoimmune disease seen in dogs and cats.

Autoimmune hemolytic anemia (AIHA) is extremely serious, life threatening and very difficult to treat. One of the problems with AIHA is it usually has a very acute onset with symptoms appearing suddenly and without warning.

Some breeds of dogs that are more prone to developing autoimmune diseases. It stands to reason that autoimmune diseases are primarily genetic in origin.

AIHA is more common in cocker spaniels, King Charles Cavalier spaniels and other spaniel breeds. Mixed breed dogs can also develop the disease.

AIHA can be difficult to diagnose because the  symptoms are very vague.

Recently, a 6-year-old blue healer dog came into the clinic with a history of not eating well and lying around more than normal.

This is the extent of symptoms in most cases with some patients showing a variety of other non-specific signs of illness. There are countless diseases and conditions that cause many dogs to not eat well and lie around more than normal.

On physical examination this patient’s gums were not nearly as pink as they should have been. That single finding prompted the necessity for blood tests.

The patient’s blood tests revealed he was extremely anemic which means he had a low red blood cell count.

There are two basic reasons for a patient to become anemic. A low red blood cell count is either from blood loss or the lack of new blood being made by bone marrow. Additional blood tests are often required to determine the exact cause of anemia.

This dog’s blood tests showed  his body was making new blood just fine. He did not have any overt bleeding from any body systems such as urinary, intestinal, and respiratory systems.

He was extremely ill and suffering from AIHA. His own white blood cells were attacking and destroying his red blood cells.

Fortunately, this patient responded well to treatment and is doing fine.

There are several different treatment protocols to manage AIHA. There is no cure.

Most patients with AIHA will have more than one episode of severe anemia in their lifetime.

Treatment, regardless of the protocol, is aimed at suppressing the immune system. Many patients have such low red blood cell counts, they need a blood transfusion.

Introducing “foreign” blood into their circulatory system can often speed up the process of their immune system destroying red blood cells. Blood transfusions are generally reserved for the most severe cases.

If your pet shows only vague symptoms of illness, don’t assume  it’s nothing to worry about. See your veterinarian as soon as possible to ensure your pet lives a long, healthy and happy life.

Dr. Jeff Castle is a veterinarian at Clark County Veterinary Clinic.