Systemic Autoimmune Disease (Lupus Erythematosus) in Dogs

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4 min read

Key takeaways

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease where the dog’s immune system attacks its own organs and tissues.

  • There is no known cause for this rare, painful, sometimes life-threatening condition, although a hereditary component is suspected due to breed predisposition
  • The symptoms are vague and non-specific including joint pain, fever, lack of appetite, sores or rashes, and lethargy
  • Prompt veterinary attention is required for dogs with these symptoms
  • Diagnostic tools include physical examination, blood work, diagnostic imaging, urinalysis, and skin biopsy
  • There is no cure for SLE
  • Treatment includes anti-inflammatory medication and steroids to suppress the immune system
  • Further treatments depend on the organs involved
  • The prognosis is guarded, with many dogs succumbing to the disease or related complications within a year of diagnosis
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A closer look: Systemic Autoimmune Disease (Lupus Erythematosus) in Dogs

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) is a rare, painful, and sometimes life-threatening condition. Dogs with the symptoms of SLE require prompt veterinary attention as the symptoms often worsen over time.

SLE is a highly variable disease depending on what organ the antibodies target, how many organs are involved, and how the body responds.

SLE is sometimes acute, meaning the symptoms appear all at once, or it can have a slower onset with symptoms developing over time. Sometimes, symptoms appear and then disappear only to reappear later. Most cases of SLE develop swollen or painful joints as the main symptom.

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Risk factors

SLE is more common in medium and large dogs. Onset usually occurs in early or middle age. Male dogs are more at risk than females.

In some cases, dogs with SLE develop severe anemia, a condition in which there are too few red blood cells in the body.

Complications in dogs with SLE increase with age due to ongoing damage to the organs. In extreme cases, organ failure occurs.

Possible causes

In a normally functioning body, the immune system produces antibodies in response to bacteria, fungi, or viruses that may infect the organs and tissues. In a dog with SLE, the immune system malfunctions and produces antibodies that target the normal tissues. These antibodies may target the skin, the blood cells, the liver, or any organ in the body, doing damage to the systems involved.

The underlying cause of SLE is unknown at this time. Due to the predisposition of certain breeds, a genetic component is suspected.

Main symptoms

The main symptoms of SLE are vague and non-specific, meaning that they are common symptoms in many different diseases which can make diagnosis challenging.

Testing and diagnosis

Diagnostic testing aims to rule out other potential causes of the symptoms shown by the patient, and confirm a diagnosis of SLE. Diagnostic tools include:

  • Physical examination
  • Bloodwork
  • Specialized testing to identify antibodies against normal tissues
  • Diagnostic imaging, such as x-rays or ultrasounds
  • Urinalysis
  • Skin biopsy
  • Cytology (examination of collected tissues under a microscope)

Steps to Recovery

There is no cure for SLE. Treatment involves steroids to suppress the immune system and anti-inflammatories to reduce the inflammation. Pain management, appetite stimulations, and anti nausea medications are also often required. In some cases of SLE, sun exposure can make skin damage worse. These patients benefit from reduced sun exposure and the use of pet-safe sunscreen.

Further treatment depends on which organs are involved.

SLE is a lifelong condition with no cure. Ongoing management is required. Dogs that are on steroids long term are susceptible to developing infections due to immunosuppression. Most cases of SLE have a guarded long-term prognosis, with many dogs dying due to organ damage or complications of treatment within a year of diagnosis. Some mild cases may have a longer lifespan, but require intensive management and close monitoring.


There are no proven preventative measures for SLE. SLE may have a genetic component, so avoiding breeding animals that develop SLE may help prevent passing the disease to subsequent generations.

Is Systemic Autoimmune Disease (Lupus Erythematosus) in Dogs common?

SLE is rare in dogs.

Typical Treatment

Corticosteroids Antiinflammatories Pain management Diverse treatments depending on the organ(s) involved


Malcolm Weir, Robin Downing - Writing for VCA Animal Hospitals
Becky Lundgren - Writing for Veterinary Partner
Ian Rodney Tizard - Writing for Merck Veterinary Manual
Stephanie Betbeze - Writing for PetMD

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