Immune disorders in dogs, as with any other type of animal or even in people, are often very difficult to diagnose. This is because they tend to only occur when another condition is present that actually triggers the immune disorder problem, or it masks the underlying immune problem. Working closely with your vet and keeping accurate records of any changes in your dog's condition during the treatment and afterwards is going to be essential in diagnosis and treatment.
Immune disorders can occur for one of two different reasons. One group of immune disorders occurs when the immune system is overactive and actually begins to attack the body, not any type of infection or foreign cells. The other type of immune disorder is caused by an under active immune system that does not properly respond to threats to the body system.
One of the most common types of immune disorders in dogs is an extreme reaction to allergens, also known as atophy. This condition, similar to allergies or hay fever in humans can come and go with the seasons or it can be present year round. Most dogs will develop their first problem with allergies between one and three years of age, however some dogs don't have problems until closer to six to eight years of age.
While there is some debate between breeders as to how inherited this condition is, there are some breeds which are much more prone to atophy than others. Not surprisingly many of the short muzzled breeds such as Pugs, Boston Terriers, Lhasa Apso and even the Boxer are more likely to develop the condition but so are German Shepherds, Labs, Irish Setters, Golden Retrievers, Shar-Peis, Dalmatians and most of the smaller terrier breeds.
Some dogs with atophy will have relatively mild symptoms that may include sneezing, runny eyes, rubbing of the ears and face, scratching and licking. Other dogs will carry these scratching, licking and biting behaviors to extremes, resulting in wounds and lesions on the skin that then produce secondary bacterial and yeast infections. In extreme cases permanent hair loss can occur in small or large patches across the dog's body.
Treatment for atophy and the associated skin infections and ear infections is generally very successful provided the owner follows the treatment plan. The first step is to try to isolate or determine the allergen, which includes reducing the diet to basic meats such as a chicken, duck or lamb and rice diet that reduces all chemicals and additives to the food. Allergens have to be removed from the environment which may mean removing carpets and fragrances in the house as well as avoiding certain cleaning compounds. Blood and skin tests can help narrow down potential allergens and help with this step. During this time the dog should also be provided with allergy shots as well as antihistamines to help control itching and licking.
Atophy is not a life threatening condition on its own but can be a real issue if other more serious health conditions are also found in the dog.
One immune condition that is very serious and almost always fatal in dogs is Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia. This is one condition that is more commonly seen in female dogs and can occur in any breed, although certain breeds are more likely to have the condition. It seems to be more significant in Poodles, Cocker Spaniels and Old English Sheepdogs, however many mixed breed dogs also develop this condition.
As with many of the immune disorders AIHA seems to become noticeable at about middle age for the dog or somewhere between 5 and 7 years. What is happening internally is that the immune system is actually destroying the red blood cells that the bone marrow is producing. While this occurs naturally in the body, in dogs with this condition it is occurring at such a high rate that the red blood cells are literally wiped out. This means that there is little oxygen carried to the cells in the body and they either slowly or very rapidly shut down.
In dogs that develop the condition over time owners will notice a decrease in energy, poor health, weakness and inability to move about without appearing exhausted. In some dogs the gums appear pale or even yellow, as can the eyes. Some dogs will have extremely rapid breathing and an racing heart rate even if they are sleeping. Generally once the symptoms are noticed it is only a few days until the kidney and liver stop functioning and the dog dies.
If the condition is diagnosed accurately there is some limited chance for recovery. The vet has to stop the immune system from reacting to the red blood cells and destroying them to stabilize the cells in the blood. This can be done by blood transfusions and corticosteriods that actually suppress the immune system. The dog has to be cared for and kept away from any other sources of diseases at this time as their immune system is literally being deactivated by the drug therapy. When the red blood count stabilizes at the correct level the corticosteriods are tapered down and tests repeated to ensure the condition is not occurring again. Most dogs that have one diagnosis of AIHA will have another as soon as the immune system is triggered again.
There are many other immune disorders that can occur within specific breeds of dogs. Since these conditions are typically only seen within that breed and within purebreds, not mixed breeds, it is essential that breeders and owners become familiar with the immune conditions and their symptoms. Early detection of these conditions can be the difference between life and death for a dog. Any dog of any breed that tests positive for any immune disorder should be immediately removed from any breeding program and the original breeder notified of the condition. While the owner of the dog may not want a refund or to return the dog, the breeder needs to know to be able to retire the breeding pair and notify all other puppy owners from those matings to give them the information and have their dog's checked and monitored for the condition.