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autoimmune part 3: lupus, the great imitator

  • Dr. Nina
  • Posted by Dr. Nina Mantione on
    Staff Veterinarian and Underwriting Support of Petplan


Continuing our discussion on autoimmune diseases, this blog will tackle the lupus, which is more formally called Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, or SLE. 

SLE is an autoimmune disease that can be very widespread, attacking many different cell types and organs throughout the body.  This is because it occurs when the immune system incorrectly identifies nucleic acid as a foreign substance.  Nucleic acids are the compounds that make up DNA and RNA, which are the building block for every cell in our pets’ – and our own! – bodies.  As you may imagine, an attack against these compounds can lead to disease in virtually any part of the body, which is why SLE is often called the “Great Imitator.”

The most typical symptoms of SLE involve the skin, joints and kidneys, but abnormalities can be seen elsewhere as well.  The symptoms of this disease include joint pain, kidney abnormalities, ulcerations or rashes involving the skin around the feet, mouth, eyelids and ears, as well as abnormalities involving red blood cells or platelets.  Often, animals with SLE will have a number of vague symptoms that may mimic other diseases.  For this reason, SLE is often quite difficult to diagnose.

In addition to a CBC and chemistry screen, which help to evaluate the areas of the body that may be under assault, other tests are necessary in order to come to a definitive diagnosis.  One of the more specific tests that is used to help diagnose SLE is a test called the ANA titer, which is looking for antibodies against nucleic acids. In order to have a definitive diagnosis of SLE, an animal has to have a positive ANA test, symptoms of the disease and two or more signs of autoimmune disease.

SLE is more common in female dogs and in certain breeds of dogs, such as Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs and German Shepherds.

Treatment for SLE involves counteracting the immune system’s attacks with potent immunosuppressive drugs and providing supportive care for any symptoms of the disease.  Unfortunately, SLE tends to be a rapidly progressive and ultimately terminal disease, but aggressive treatment can help to provide a longer quality life for affected pets.

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Chris AshtonCo-Founder and Co-CEO of Petplan Pet Insurance
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