Definition of Autoimmune Disease

by Vickie Halstead RN, CVNS, CCRN, CEN, LNC

The actual definition of autoimmune disease is abnormal functioning of the immune system, so first the function of the normal immune system needs to be defined. Sometimes autoimmune diseases are referred to as immune-mediated diseases.

The 2 major components of the immune system that reside in the blood are:

(1) Lymphocytes (leukocytes or white blood cells), which are produced by the bone marrow, spleen, and lymph nodes

(2) Antibodies, which are produced by the lymphocytes

Both components are activated when cells different from the body’ s normal cells enter the body including bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Therefore, the immune system combats infection and invasion of foreign substances, and recognizes the body’s normal cells.

Autoimmune disease means that the immune system does not recognize the body’s normal cells, and attacks them resulting in numerous chronic inflammatory diseases that are listed below, any of which can cause death in time. The most common symptom of all the autoimmune diseases is fatigue, which may reflect in your dog as changes in energy, appetite, and behavior. Treatment sometimes involves high doses of steroids to decrease the immune response, depending on severity.

The causes of autoimmune disease are complex, including a genetic predisposition, drugs, chemicals, major viral infections, poor nutrition and stress. Drugs that may precipitate autoimmune disease are steroids, excessive vaccinations, and preventives for fleas and ticks. Causative chemicals may include pollution and lawn chemicals. Read these articles for more information: About Vaccines and Bichons, The Wise Use of Preventive Medications; About Fleas, Ticks, and Other Pests.

Breeding advice for Bichons affected with autoimmune disease is not to breed the dog due to the risk for genetic susceptibility to the disease. If more than 2 puppies are produced in a litter that later develop autoimmune disease, do not repeat that breeding. Also, you may want to avoid breeding two Bichons who have close relatives with autoimmune disease.

Potential autoimmune diseases, categorized by body system involved:(Note: Any of the diseases listed can be genetic, or at least the dog can be genetically programmed to develop the disease as an autoimmune response.)

  1. Neurological or neuromuscular
    1. Multiple sclerosis
    2. Guillain-Barre syndrome
    3. Myasthenia gravis
    4. Encephalitis
  2. Eyes
    1. Sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome (SARDS)
    2. Uveitis or Iritis (inflammation of the iris)
    3. Keratitis Sicca (dry eye)
    4. Optic neuritis (inflammation of the optic nerve)
  3. Systemic diseases (may affect connective tissue)
    1. Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)
    2. Scleroderma
  4. Blood
    1. Immune-Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA
    2. Idiopathic Thrombocytopenia Purpura (ITP) (reduced platelets)
      a. Also called Immune-Mediated Thrombocytopenia (IMTP)
    3. Hemophilia (bleeding disorder)
    4. Von Willebrands disease (bleeding disorder)
    5. Lymphoma, lymphocytic leukemia
  5. Skin
    1. Allergies, itching
    2. Urticaria (hives)
    3. Dermatitis
    4. Psoriasis
    5. Pemphigus (blisters, ulcerations)
    6. Juvenile Cellulitis (puppy strangles)
  6. Joints
    1. Rheumatoid Arthritis
    2. Polyarthritis (arthritis in several joints)
  7. Endocrine
    1. Diabetes
    2. Cushing’s disease
    3. Thyroid diseases
    4. Addison’s disease
  8. Cardiovascular
    1. Atherosclerosis
    2. Vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels)
    3. Myocarditis (inflammation of heart muscle)
  9. Respiratory
    1. Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia (PCD)
    2. Pulmonary Fibrosis (stiff lungs)
    3. Immune-Mediated Pneumonia
  10. Gastrointestinal
    1. Crohn’s disease
    2. Ulcerative Colitis (colon inflammation)
    3. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
    4. Pancreatitis
    5. Biliary Cirrhosis (liver)
    6. Hepatitis
    7. Intestinal Lymphagiectasia
  11. Kidneys/bladder
    1. Glomerulonephritis (kidney inflammation)
    2. Chronic cystitis (bladder inflammation)

Research for this article includes:
The Merck Veterinary Manual
The Dog Owners Veterinary Handbook by James Griffen & Liisa Carlson
The 5 Minute Veterinary Consult by Larry Tilley & Francis Smith
Textbook of Medical Physiology by Guyton & Hall
“Canine Immune System and Disease Resistance” by Dr. W. Jean Dodds, DVM