Autoimmune disease in dogs is a common problem and one which, even with careful breeding, is almost impossible to completely avoid. The best you can do as a concerned owner is to understand what these diseases are and to take steps to get a proper diagnosis and treatment should your dog show any symptoms. Fortunately, in most cases dogs with an AI disease can live a long and relatively healthy life with the proper treatment.
In both humans and dogs, the immune system serves the same function. It is designed to identify potential threats to health and attack them when it finds them. The specialized cells of the immune system travel through the bloodstream disabling and consuming bacteria and viruses, which they can recognize due to their foreign proteins. In most dogs, this system helps to keep illnesses at bay and maintain good health. Unfortunately, in some cases the system doesn't function as it is supposed to and this is when a dog's health can be seriously compromised.
When it misfires, the cells of the immune system identify the body's own tissues or other benign organisms as threats and begin to attack them. No one really understands what causes this to happen, but this is how autoimmune disease in dogs occurs. There are a variety of different AI diseases, which can affect various parts of the body and can have devastating, sometimes fatal, effects.
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Autoimmune disease can strike dogs at any time in their lives.
Autoimmune diseases can occur in any breed and, unfortunately, this includes the Australian Shepherd. In fact, this class of diseases is very common in Aussies, with the most frequently diagnosed AI diseases being Autoimmune thyroiditis or hypothyroidism, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Lupus, and Pemphigus. Other AI diseases occur less frequently among Aussies, but all can have serious consequences if not properly treated.
While we still don't understand the exact reason for the immune system to malfunction, we do know that as with humans autoimmune disease in dogs requires some sort of "trigger" in order to occur. Some common events that can become triggers include parasites, injury, another disease, exhaustion, emotional distress, or toxic exposure. Generally, anything that puts the body under considerable stress can lead to the development of autoimmune disease.
As scientists began to discover the perils of exposure to infectious agents the ability to avoid or eradicate them through good cleanliness practices increased. While this helped reduce the instances of disease, it also caused problems as developing immune systems that weren't experiencing these infections became unable to distinguish between good and bad substances and started attacking healthy bodies, thus increasing the instances of AI disease.
Since the development of autoimmune disease in dogs has a genetic link, careful breeding practices can help to limit exposure, though they can't eliminate it entirely. This is why concerned owners should be aware of the possible signs of AI disease and get their dogs to the vet as quickly as possible should any of them present.
Unfortunately, autoimmune disease can strike at any time during a dog's life and some of the symptoms may mimic those of other diseases so it can't always be immediately distinguished. The only real solution is to be proactive and get your dog to the vet for a proper diagnosis so that treatment can begin as quickly as possible.
For more information about autoimmune disease in Australian Shepherds see the Australian Shepherd Health & Genetics Institute (ASHGI).
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