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Autoimmune Disease

By far the most serious health concern is autoimmune disease. Theories into the cause of the deteriorating immune system in both human and animals are varied. While many are not proven to be hereditary it is noted that higher proportion of those affected are within certain family groups. Rearing practices, geographical and environmental influences could also contribute to the alarming increase in cases.

Autoimmune problems in mammals begin when the immune system makes a mistake and starts to produce antibodies, which attack and destroy its own cells and body tissues. The reasons why this happens are unknown. One theory is that it may be a combination of a genetically inherited tendency triggered by environmental factors such as; certain viruses, drugs, immunisations, parasite rinses, worming treatments, chemicals, trauma and high stress situations.

Autoimmune diseases known to occur in Akitas are as follows:-

THYROID DISEASE and HYPOTHYROIDISM This disease, which slowly destroys the thyroid gland’s tissues over a period of years, leads to a reduction in the production of thyroid hormones. Incidents of the Akita developing this disease are extremely high. In searching for the causes we must never ignore possible relevant factors, including those of an environmental nature. Where we house our dogs in relation to toxic substances eg. Pesticides, fertilisers, industrial pollutants could all be a contributing factor. What we put into our dogs eg. Polluted food & water, drugs orally or intravenously are all environment hazards, which must be considered together with heritability.

The degree of symptoms varies with each animal and not all symptoms may be evident. Skin and coat problems such as, hot spots, dry flaky skin, dull broken coat, lack of coat, itching and chewing are all common symptoms of the disease. Usually misdiagnosed as "allergy" then incorrectly treated with a course of cortisone injections, the treatment is never successful. Although it may appear to offer the animal some relief, it masks the true cause and this often leads to other more damaging problems.
Besides skin problems, other symptoms include weight variations, seizures, intolerance to cold temperatures, loss in appetite, fatigue, lethargy, reproductive irregularity (in both sexes) and most commonly behavioural changes eg. Aggression. Liver, kidney and adrenal disease, susceptibility to infections, anaemia and bleeding can also be added to the list of Thyroid dysfunctions.
Thyroid disease cannot be cured but it can be effectively controlled once correctly diagnosed. Thyroid hormones usually administered in tablet form and given daily will help the animal maintain a relatively happy and normal life. This must be continued for the duration of its life. This disease is rarely found in young dogs and usually presents itself during middle age. Unfortunately, by the time the dog has been diagnosed it has usually already been used for breeding purposes.

PEMPHIGUS FOLIACEUS (PF) PF is another type of autoimmune skin problem found more often in the Akita than any other breed. Unlike thyroid disease this skin problem is where the antibodies attack the skin itself. It is seen as small red spots that rapidly become blisters, then pustules finally forming deep crusts on the footpads, nose, ears and around the eyes. In extreme cases crusts are found over the entire body and loss of pigment may occur.

The dog may appear to be lethargic and depressed and may be stiff gaited or jointed showing lameness. In rare cases in the abdomen and/or legs swelling will occur. Most frequently, thyroid disease is found in addition to PF and this can affect dogs of both sexes at any age. There is no cure but treatment with large doses of steroids or combinations of drugs have been used with some success. These dogs must be monitored regularly and remain on these drugs for the balance of their life.

VOGT-KOYANAGI-HARADA (VKH) & SYSTEMIC LUPUS ERYTHEMATOSUS (SLE) Alarmingly both these autoimmune disease are on the increase in Akitas. Symptoms for VKH include loss of pigmentation on the skin, sores on the nose, mouth and genitalia, red patchy skin progressing to hair loss, bloodshot eyes leading to blindness. SLE causes similar skin complaints together with inflammation of the connective tissues and internal organs such as lungs and kidneys. In many cases these diseases are combined with Thyroid disease. To date there is no cure for either disease and early diagnosis is important for any degree of success with treatment.

AUTOIMMUNE HAEMOLYTIC ANAEMIA (AHA) AHA is a particularly nasty disease where antibodies produced destroys the red blood cells creating uncontrollable anaemia and bone marrow destruction. Lethargy, pale mucous membranes and dark wine-coloured urine resulting in severe anaemia are the symptoms. Once again, there is a distinguishable connection between AHA and thyroid disease. Diagnosis is difficult and can only be made by extracting the dogs’ bone marrow for examination. Administering hormone therapy together with massive amounts of immune-suppressant drugs can reverse the reaction and control the disease. The disease may go into remission but a relapse is likely.

THROMBOCYTOPENIA This is a blood disease that could turn a simple routine surgical procedure into a struggle between life and death. The problem occurs when the blood contains too few platelets (Thrombocytes). Platelets are essential for the blood clotting so in effect the patient could bleed to death. Many Akitas with AHA also have thrombocytopenia. The antibodies that attack the red cells attack the platelets as well.

VON WILLEBRANDS DISEASE (VWD) VWD is another blood disease that affects the bloods ability to clot. It can either be a congenital (present at birth) inherited disease or acquired later in life as an autoimmune disease. Dogs suffer unexplained episodes of internal and external bleeding. Noticeable conditions are blood in stool and/or urine, nosebleeds or bleeding gums, intermittent lameness, stillbirths or neonatal bleeding and severe bleeding from puppy’s umbilical cord. Sadly, there is no treatment or cure.

LIVER DISEASE Liver dysfunction associated with other autoimmune diseases is quite common. Drugs used to treat other autoimmune diseases can trigger liver disease in susceptible dogs. Newer monthly heartworm preventatives, single or combination modified live virus vaccines and sulpha drugs can elevate liver enzymes and induce the disease. Dogs with thyroid dysfunction and VWD are more likely to be affected and females more so than males.

DEGENERATIVE MYELOPATHY (DM) Canine DM is relatively a new disease for the Akita. Only a few confirmed cases have been recorded. Canine DM is similar to Multiple Scleroses (MS) in humans. Both are degenerative neurological diseases of the nervous system. In canine DM the myelin sheaths, which surround the nerve fibres with a protective coating, diminish. Symptoms include weakness of the hindquarters, either recurring or progressive. DM is possibly an inherited autoimmune disease and affected dogs should not be used for breeding. However as the disease usually manifests itself on the older dog (between 5 & 14 years) many would have already been used for breeding. Misdiagnosis as premature old age crippling, arthritis or hip dysplasias are also common. At this stage only experimental drugs and supplements have been slightly successful but there is no cure.

EPILEPSY Seizures of varying degrees caused by electrical disorders of the brain are better known as epileptic seizures. These seizures are usually preceded by behavioural changes, restlessness and anxiety. Seizures may be an early neurological sign of autoimmune thyroid disease. A dog suffering a seizure may collapse and lose consciousness for several minutes. They may foam at the mouth and have uncontrolled head shaking. Accurate diagnosis is essential as seizures can also be caused by allergic reactions to drugs, insect bites, stings, snake bites, heat stroke, low blood sugar, liver disease, infectious diseases, head injuries, brain tumours and poisoning from toxic materials. Epilepsy can be controlled or prevented by treating the primary cause.

SEBACEOUS ADENITIS (SA) SA also on the increase in the Akita, is more of a cosmetic problem than a physically debilitating one. SA is a skin condition usually effecting young adult dogs. Antibodies attack and permanently destroy the sebaceous glands (oil secreting glands that open into the hair follicles on the skin). The symptoms vary with each animal but usually include irreversible and progressive hair loss, thick scaly skin, secondary skin infections and crusty skin lesions. The animal has a strong musky odour. Diagnosis is only by skin biopsy and there is no cure. However, many SA Akita owners have found that by changing the dogs diet to a natural (raw) diet, radicle improvements in the condition of the coat have been noted.

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