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Autoimmune Disease in Dogs and Cats Explained

Autoimmune Disease in Dogs and Cats

A normal immune system functions to remove foreign or invading substances such as bacteria or viruses, by targeting them for destruction and systematically removing them.  The immune system is comprised of a complex network of tissues specialized to create and mobilize white blood cells and other complex immune cells in concert with regulatory proteins and biochemical mediators to carry out the immune system’s search and destroy mission to rid the body of foreign invaders.  Autoimmune disease refers to a class of diseases whose cause stems from the immune system functioning abnormally to mediate the attack of its own tissues.

Autoimmune disease can be present in just about any organ system of the body, where an abnormally functioning immune system can destroy certain integral cell lines of the body , as in the case of immune mediated hemolytic anemia, or attack its own tissues, as in the case of chronic active hepatitis.  Other autoimmune diseases target the gut, as in the case of inflammatory bowel disease, while still others target the central nervous system.

What causes autoimmune disease?

Autoimmune disease is by in large genetic, where inherited abnormal genes are responsible for creating a dysfunctional immune system capable of mistaking its own tissues for and invading or foreign substance.  Exceptions to this rule are circumstances where disease intervenes to create abnormal tissue morphology that facilitates the immune system targeting the tissue for attack.  Certain cancers can be responsible for this, as can certain infectious diseases, such as tick born bacterial infections.  That stated, most cases of autoimmune disease are genetic in origin.

Do vaccines cause autoimmune disease?

No.  It has become a popular topic among internet chat forum people, some breeders, groomers, and other non-medically people that work in the pet industry that pet vaccines are a major cause for autoimmune disease in dogs and cats.  The reality, however, is that the link to vaccines causing autoimmune disease is at best thin.  While it is true that vaccines can trigger or exacerbate autoimmune disease in a patient already genetically predisposed to it, they are not the cause.  As such, attempts to prevent autoimmune disease by not having pets immunized are both misguided and dangerous, leaving pets susceptible to deadly infectious disease when the main determination of whether or not a pet will develop autoimmune disease lies in its genetic code.

That stated, in a patient with known autoimmune disease vaccines whose protective properties stem from their ability to stimulate the immune system into creating protective antibodies against a given infectious disease, vaccines could aggravate existing disease.  Therefore, in patients with known existing autoimmune disease, it is best to administer vaccines minimally, focusing more on reducing risk through lifestyle adjustment and trying to gauge the necessity for vaccine administration on protective antibody titers.  While protective antibody titers are far from a fool proof measurement of disease preventability, they still offer some value for patients that have diseases that can be exacerbated by vaccines.  (Click here for more on vaccine titers)

Does feeding grains cause autoimmune disease?

No.  While some grains, such as wheat have the potential to cause food allergy, which technically is a form of the immune system over-reacting or acting inappropriately, allergy and autoimmune disease are very different.  With an allergy the immune system responds to a false alarm created by a harmless substance it has mistaken as a threat.  In the case of autoimmune disease, the immune system’s recognition apparatus breaks down, and the body begins to manufacture T cells and antibodies directed against its own cells and tissues.

Can I prevent autoimmune disease in my pet?

In most cases with genes driving most predilections to autoimmune disease, the answer is in most cases, no.  However, decreasing the risk of infectious diseases known to trigger autoimmune disease can help to minimize some risk.  Keeping your pet healthy through good nutrition, good preventive well care, husbandry, and overall minimizing their potential to contract infectious disease that are known to trigger autoimmune disease is therefore a good idea.

Keeping cats indoors and decreaseing potential exposure to the blood parasite hemobartonella, for example, an infection known to trigger immune mediate destruction of red blood cells leading to life threatening anemia, would help to decrease their potential for autoimmune disease.  With flea bites suspected to be a major vector for the transmission of bartonella felis, a bacteria linked to autoimmune stomatitis, a disease that leads to painful infections and ulcerations of the gums and other mucus membranes of the mouth of cats, monthly flea prevention could go a long way toward preventing the disease.

In dogs, certain tick born bacterial diseases are linked to autoimmune disease, making limited exposure to ticks and/or comprehensive tick prevention an important way to reduce risk of autoimmune disease being triggered by infection.

Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital and CEO/Chief Editor of the veterinary information and blog online community, Web-DVM.

29 thoughts on “Autoimmune Disease in Dogs and Cats Explained

  1. Tana Haider says:

    My Veterinary Dermatologist told me that my dog has an autoimmune disease called vasculitis caused by his vaccinations. When my dg received his first vaccine as a puppy, his hair fell out on the site of the vaccine and never grew back. Then, the edges of his ears started falling off. My veterinarian suggested taking him to the Dermatologist, which I did and he was then diagnosed with the autoimmune disease with the Vasculitis. I do believe that the vaccines my little dog received caused his autoimmune disease. My dog is 8 years old. About a year ago, I was sent to a specialist Veterinarian because of the Arthritis my dog has and she said his autoimmune disease has caused him to have Arthritis in all of his joints. He gets Adequan injections twice a month for his Arthritis. I think our dogs and getting way too many vaccinations way to often.

    • Sue says:

      All vaccination is over vaccination, and to all who say they don’t cause auto-immune disease, I say BS! Medical journals have admitted vaccinations causing auto-immune disease in people (I’ve experienced it in my own family), and the Perdue studies showed they cause auto-immune disease in dogs. The reps of the pharma industry and related industries in their coalition can deny it until the cows come home. I know after 35 years of research what the truth is.

      • Len Claus says:

        I agree 100% My little dog died one month after her shots and there was no reason for it. She was only 3.5 yrs old and very healthy before these clowns killed her.

  2. Ronald J Tabbitas says:

    We are devastated. Our 4 1/2 year dog just died of Protein-losing enteropathy (PLE) causing severe IBS. Prior to May 13th, my Dog was on antibiotics due to extreme skin breakout on her face and paws. She always had skin issues and experienced Anal Gland fluid retention and the vet had to clean them every month for her entire life. On May 13th, we told the vet that she seemed sluggish and he did Thyroid test but said the results came back fine. That same day she received her annual vaccinations. A few days later, she developed huge open sores under her eyes and fluid Diarrhea. This went on for two weeks until the vet recommended we take her to a specialist who performed a scope and biopsy and confirmed that she had PLE.

    She was put on steroids and immune suppression medication but just never recovered and continued to get weaker and weaker. After continued vomiting and diarrhea for another three weeks, weight loss and fluid build up, we could not let her suffer any longer so we put her down. This was heartbreaking but inhumane to continue to have her suffer.

    It seems from your article that the Vaccines could have triggered the aggressive immune system response which we could not get back under control.

    Please let us know as we simply don’t understand what happened here and we need closure.

  3. Christina says:

    I am SO SORRY. My 9 year old cocker spaniel is super sick. He has skin rashes all over his body it has worsened progressively for 6 months. Financially I am restricted, but I have been to my vet 6 times, 3 times antibiotics and 1 time I walked away, 1 for a follow up, and 1 they sold me their ear wash and skin wash. I have him on probiotics and grain free dog food. I am worried about him every day and I am SO sorry about your puppy!

  4. Jodi says:

    So I found this article because I am about to go for the 3rd round of puppy site with my new pup. I read about how vaccines can cause autoimmune, which honestly didn’t sound right. As my husband worked at a genetics lab and he himself has an autoimmune, vitiligo. Thank you for the good information.

  5. salicia shu says:


  6. Reba says:

    My puppy started showing symptoms (lethargic, shaking, panting, urinating indoors) 4 days after vaccinations. I don’t know if the vaccine caused it but it certainly triggered it. I am really glad we did not wait more than a couple days to get an MRI, it saved his life. Best of luck to anyone going through the same thing

  7. Gary Rokuta says:

    What difference would asking a veterinarian make as They’re the ones who caused my golden retriever to be so ITCHY, so jittery, scared of fireworks. Possibly genes as inappropriate vaccinating definitely made the difference of having me feel so sorry, and sometimes angry and frustrated and you think any of these veterinarians care? Definitely NOT!

  8. Sandy Barringer says:

    I currently have a cat with flea allergies and renal failure. When they diagnosed renal failure, they said he is not well enough to be vaccinated which is fine with me; I don’t do the vaccinations any more, for myself or my pets. But, in two weeks they want to run more blood tests, and if the tests “look better”, then they want to vaccinate the cat. My answer is NO! They plea that he needs his teeth cleaned and it’s clinic policy that all animals being admitted for care must be vaccinated. My response is, then he won’t get his teeth cleaned here! I determined, just by plain common sense, a couple of years ago that this particular cat is not healthy enough for any more vaccinations. He has other health problems too besides those mentioned. After extensive research on vaccines, I will not vaccinate any longer, period, for any of my animals.

  9. Julie says:

    We just put our dog down yesterday. After a 3 month battle. We had a healthy pup, who had a mild reaction to his first shots. Our breeder recommended a different vaccine schedule. I rang around 4 different local vets, who all brushed off my concerns. We went ahead with the standard schedule. One week after his last round of shots, he nearly died. He was diagnosed with immune mediated polyarthritis and meningitis. He also had signs of thrombocytopenia. He was internally bleeding. He was put on immune suppressants but was never the same. He would fall over sometimes, and just sleep all day. He couldn’t run. Sometimes he would relapse and be in so much in pain we couldn’t touch him. We then discovered lesions and discolouration on his nose, and I was starting to suspect lupus. The medication wasn’t working, and so we decided that he’d had enough. We have paid $7000 in vet bills (highway robbery), and we have lost our precious boy. All tests looking for an underlying bacteria or parasite or infection came back clear. So, you’re telling me, we had a bouncy, perfectly healthy puppy, and then we give him his shots, which are designed to trigger the immune system, and his immune system went into overdrive, and it’s not the shots? I have spoken to people who have had payments from the vaccine manufacturers for auto immune disease. The manufacturers know! I am not anti- vaccine, but my boy obviously needed a different approach. But because the veterinary system doesn’t take this seriously, THAT is why people are turning anti-vaccine. We need to take these reactions seriously and cater individually for dogs. People’s concerns need to be taken seriously. Adverse reactions can and do happen, and any vet will admit this, but when it’s plainly in front of them, they don’t ever believe it. There are many, many, many stories out there of pets reacting badly to vaccines and their vets blatantly writing it off as something else. We did things the conventional way but my trust has been broken. I believe vaccine reactions are grossly underreported and I’m starting to wonder if vaccines were to blame for my previous dogs’ allergies and autoimmune issues too. None of them were free of immune related problems. The truth is, there are actual vets out there that believe and know this, and it’s not just “internet chat forum people, some breeders, groomers, and other non-medically people that work in the pet industry”. My vet agreed with me that it was possible the vaccines triggered these diseases in him.

  10. Ronald Tabbitas says:

    I agree Julie – to this day I believe strongly that it was the vaccine that ended by dogs life.

    This is not simply a case of causation versus correlation.


  11. As a sanctuary volunteer, I when strolled a four-legged bulldozer just to reside in concern of road breakout.

  12. Len Claus says:

    Dec31 2018 My dog died of AIHA (autoimmune) exactly one month after her vaccine. Tests showed no cancer,no tumors, no tick bite, nothing wrong with her at all. She was a healthy, vibrant 3.5 year old sweetheart. It sickens me the Big Pharm makes millions off pet owners and we believe this crap they tell us. DON’T vaccinate your dog every year like I did. I feel as though I killed my little girl and it feels awful…..

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