May is Lupus Awareness Month, so we’re taking a look at autoimmune diseases in cats. Autoimmune diseases, such as lupus in cats, often present with varied or even vague symptoms, which can make them difficult to diagnose. Fortunately, autoimmune diseases in cats are rare overall.
What are autoimmune diseases?
An autoimmune disorder results when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells, tissues, and organs. Common autoimmune diseases in humans include rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, lupus, celiac disease, and multiple sclerosis.
Medical researchers speculate that genetics, diet, infections, and exposure to chemicals might trigger autoimmune disorders—but the cause of these diseases is largely unknown.
Which autoimmune diseases occur in cats?
While autoimmune diseases in cats are rare, they may also be underdiagnosed. Of these, cats will most commonly be diagnosed with autoimmune skin diseases or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), also known as lupus in cats.
What is lupus in cats?
Systemic lupus in cats results from abnormal regulation of the immune system. In this instance, the cat’s immune system forms antibodies against tissues in the body and attacks the body’s own cells.
Fortunately, lupus in cats is rare. The disease may be hereditary, as Siamese, Persian, and Persian crosses are more often diagnosed.
Signs and symptoms of autoimmune diseases in cats
As mentioned earlier, the symptoms of autoimmune diseases in cats can be misleading and easy to misdiagnose. Regarding lupus in cats, Catherine Barnette, DVM, explains that approximately 60% of affected cats have skin lesions, such as ulcers, sores, scabs, or simply redness. These will most commonly appear on the face, ears, or paws, but can appear elsewhere on the body.
In addition to skin lesions, cats with autoimmune diseases may show the following signs:
- Decreased appetite
- Fever (especially if resistant to antibiotics)
- Shifting-leg lameness
- Swollen or painful joints
- Hair loss
Diagnosis and treatment
A veterinarian will need to perform a variety of tests to diagnose an autoimmune disease in your cat. These may include a complete physical examination, skin biopsies where symptoms present, a complete blood count (CBC) to check cell counts and organ function, and an antinuclear antibody (ANA) test to assess the presence of antibodies.
Should your veterinarian determine that your cat has lupus or another autoimmune disease, treatment will likely include immunosuppression with corticosteroid drugs like prednisolone. The vet may prescribe additional medications and a specific diet, depending on your cat’s affected bodily system(s).
You’ll want to make sure your cat gets lots of rest and lives in an environment with minimal stress. Your kitty should also stay indoors and out of direct sunlight, which could worsen skin lesion symptoms. Long-term, talk to your vet about whether your cat should continue with standard vaccinations.
If treated early, autoimmune diseases such as lupus in cats can often be controlled short-term. Unfortunately, relapse is common and conditions may deteriorate rather suddenly. Lifelong immunosuppressive treatment will likely be required, which can also have wearing side effects on a cat. You will need to monitor your cat’s symptoms closely and have consistent contact with your veterinarian.
Can you prevent autoimmune diseases in cats?
Because autoimmune diseases in cats, including lupus in cats, may have a hereditary component, be sure to spay and neuter—even if your cat isn’t an “at-risk” breed.
Cover photo by A Cruikshank on Unsplash.