Autoimmune Disease in Cats

The symptoms of systemic autoimmune disease in cats, such as lack of energy, fatigue, skin ulcers, joint pain, and weight loss, are usually unclear.

A definitive cause is often not recognised, but a genetic pattern (such as with Persians and their crosses) or viral causes is suspected in many instances.

The outlook for the long term is poor. Systemic autoimmune disease (SAD), also known as Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), influences the cat’s immune system in a way that it destroys its cells.

The harm caused and the effects that result depend on which tissue is targeted. For instance, if red blood cells are attacked, the cat becomes weak due to anaemia caused by a lack of blood cells.

What triggers autoimmune disease in cats?

There is no explanation of the possible cause of autoimmune disease in cats. Nonetheless, some theorise that genetics and environmental contaminants play a role.

Certain drugs have also been reported as possible triggers for pemphigus foliaceus, a popular form of autoimmune skin disease in cats. Early recognition is highly significant.

The symptoms of autoimmune disease in cats can become extreme when left untreated, and multiple involvements in the system are normal. This can make it very difficult and complex for diagnosis and therapy.

Signs of systemic autoimmune disease in cats

All body tissue may potentially be damaged by systemic autoimmune disease, depending on which cells are mislabeled for assault. Thus, the symptoms of illness differ based on which part of the tissue is damaged.

This results in unclear signs that could warn the cat’s owner that their pet is unwell and seek competent veterinary advice.

One or more of the following are common clues:

  • Weakness and lethargy: This may happen due to anaemia or because the cat feels unwell.
  • Skin lesions: Where the skin touches mucous membranes, including the lips, eyes and anus, is a common site of problems. The skin becomes inflamed, ulcerated, and scabby.
  • Bleeding: A certain type of autoimmune disease in cats attacks the thrombocytes whose function is to clot blood.
  • Lameness: The joints are targeted by another type of SLE, which causes pain and changing lameness.
  • Excessive thirst: This is most common when kidneys are targeted.
  • A low appetite and loss of weight

Diagnosis of systemic autoimmune disease in cats

Sadly, diagnosis is not always easy, as many false positives are correlated with the studies. This suggests that although the test report may come out negative, if the cat has strongly noticeable symptoms, SAD cannot be ruled out and the vet might need to look a little deeper still.


The vet checks the cat after taking a history and takes note of signs such as pale gums, joint pain, a swollen spleen, or proof of recent bleeding. This allows the vet to rule out such scenarios, as well as determine which tests are most beneficial.

A general blood profile that looks at haematology (the red and white cells of the cat) and biochemistry is a proper first step. This provides an overview of whether the cat in a specific cell line is anaemic or defective, and whether organ damage occurs. The vet uses this knowledge to pinpoint more checks.

Unfortunately, no single test is 100 per cent specific or 100 per cent accurate so that the image can be confused by false negatives and false positives.

Additional blood tests used include:

  • Anti-Nuclear Antibody (ANA) test: False positives can happen with liver disease or in cats with positive feline leukaemia.
  • Coombs test: In mild SAD, false negatives may occur
  • Evaluating a fresh blood smear under the microscope: Searching for particular forms of damage to red blood cells that suggest an attack by the immune system

In addition, samples from particular areas affected, including a skin biopsy or joint fluid, can be harvested by the vet. Treatment is based on using medications to turn off the immune system that is inappropriate to avoid the body from destroying itself. It isn’t necessary or helpful to have surgical intervention.


High doses of corticosteroids such as prednisolone are often used as the first choice as they are highly efficient and inexpensive. Typically, these medications are delivered by mouth every day so that slight dosage changes can be made. They should be provided with or after food to minimise the risk of gastric ulceration.

Originally, high doses are given for two to four weeks before a sustained improvement happens. Following that, the dose is lowered progressively every two to four weeks. The goal is to avoid therapy until the SAD is turned off. Unfortunately, relapses at some point in the future are normal.

Steroids are linked with adverse effects such as short-term increased thirst and appetite, and potential long-term complications causing diabetes or Cushing’s disease. In order to verify the reaction to care, daily monitoring of the blood is required; this may be weekly or bi-weekly at first.

Other immunosuppressive medications

Like azathioprine, other immunosuppressive medications may be added to the regimen should the cat fail to respond to corticosteroid treatment. Some cats react to initial care for some time, but relapses are normal.

Recovery of systemic autoimmune disease in cats

Daily follow-up appointments and blood tests are necessary for those cats on medication. This enables dose changes to be made (up or down), based on how the pet reacts. A sick or weak cat may require hospitalisation during the first few days of treatment,  in order to obtain a blood transfusion or soothing intravenous fluids.

When healthy, or if SAD is moderate, regular or alternating day-to-day doses of medication can be carried out at home. If the issue is detected before it reaches a crisis stage, the short-term outlook is positive, but regression or relapse is normal and associated with a high mortality rate.

For those cats who respond to care, the owner must be alert for relapse and seek immediate medical help should their cat become unwell.

An autoimmune disease in cats is a possible life-threatening disorder that needs comprehensive medical testing and treatments. It is hardly curable, but with the right treatment, it is controllable.

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