What Autoimmune Disease Attacks Dogs Nails?

Autoimmune diseases in dogs are conditions where the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own healthy cells and tissues. They are relatively uncommon in dogs compared to other species. Autoimmune diseases can affect various parts of a dog’s body, including the skin, joints, blood, and organs. Some autoimmune diseases like pemphigus and lupus can lead to lesions and inflammation of a dog’s nails and nail beds, causing a condition called onychodystrophy where the nails become misshapen, thickened, brittle, or prone to infections.


Onychodystrophy is a general term that refers to any abnormality or disease affecting the claws or nails in dogs. It can have several potential causes including autoimmune diseases, infections, trauma, metabolic disorders, and congenital defects.

The most common symptoms of onychodystrophy include:

  • Deformed, brittle, discolored nails
  • Cracking, splitting, or loss of nails
  • Pain and swelling around nails
  • Bleeding around nail beds
  • Foul odor from nails

While any breed can be affected, onychodystrophy seems to occur more often in certain breeds like Siberian huskies, German shepherds, Great Danes, Dobermans, and Labrador retrievers. The problem usually starts around 3-5 years of age.

Treatment depends on the underlying cause but may include trimming and bandaging nails, antimicrobials for infection, immunosuppressants for autoimmune diseases, and nutritional supplements. Severely affected nails may need to be removed surgically. Prognosis is generally good if treated early before permanent damage occurs.

Pemphigus Foliaceus

Pemphigus foliaceus is an autoimmune skin disease that affects dogs. It causes the immune system to attack desmosomes, which are proteins that help keep the layers of skin cells together (Almela, n.d.). This leads to lesions and crusting of the skin, especially on the face, ears, feet, and tail. The most common symptoms of pemphigus foliaceus include:

  • Scaly, crusted lesions on the skin
  • Redness and inflammation
  • Hair loss
  • Itching and discomfort

Certain breeds are more prone to developing pemphigus foliaceus, including Collies, German Shepherds, Akita, Chow Chows, and Shar Peis (PetMD, 2023). The disease is usually diagnosed through skin biopsies. Treatments focus on suppressing the immune system and managing symptoms. Common medications include corticosteroids like prednisone, azathioprine, and cyclosporine. Early treatment leads to better outcomes. With aggressive therapy, most dogs with pemphigus foliaceus can achieve remission, but relapses are common if medication is stopped (Goodale, 2019).

Regular monitoring, medication adjustments, and good owner compliance are key to controlling this autoimmune disease in dogs. Left untreated, pemphigus foliaceus can worsen and become debilitating.

Discoid Lupus Erythematosus (DLE)

Discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) is one of the most common autoimmune skin diseases seen in dogs. It causes inflammation and sores on the skin, especially on the nose, lips, ears, and eyelids. German Shepherds, Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs, and Siberian Huskies are breeds most frequently affected by DLE.

The main symptoms of DLE in dogs include:

  • Depigmentation and hair loss on the nose and lips
  • Crusting and scaling of affected areas
  • Open sores or scarring on the nose and ears
  • Redness and inflammation of the skin

There is no cure for DLE, but it can be managed with medications prescribed by a veterinarian. Treatments aim to control symptoms and prevent complications. Common medications used include corticosteroids, immunosuppressants like cyclosporine, and retinoids. Antibiotics may be prescribed for secondary infections. Limiting sun exposure can also help manage DLE. In severe cases, surgical reconstruction of damaged tissue may be required (Discoid Lupus Erythematosus in Dogs).

Pemphigus Vulgaris

Pemphigus vulgaris is an autoimmune skin disease that affects dogs. It causes painful blisters and sores on the skin and mucous membranes such as the mouth, nose, and genitals. Certain breeds like Collies, German Shepherds, and Dachshunds are predisposed to pemphigus vulgaris.

The most common symptoms of pemphigus vulgaris include fever, depression, severe mouth ulcers, blisters, and crusted skin lesions. The blisters tend to rupture easily, leaving raw ulcerated areas prone to infection. Dogs may have difficulty eating due to the painful mouth ulcers.

There is no cure for pemphigus vulgaris but it can be managed with immunosuppressive drugs like glucocorticoids to control the overactive immune system. Antibiotics may be prescribed to prevent secondary infections. Supportive care like soft foods, IV fluids, and wound management help dogs remain comfortable during treatment.

With aggressive treatment, dogs with pemphigus vulgaris can go into remission. But lifelong medication and monitoring is usually required to keep the disease in check.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) is one of the most common autoimmune diseases that can affect a dog’s nails and skin. SLE occurs when the immune system attacks the body’s own healthy cells and tissues, leading to inflammation and damage

Some common symptoms of SLE in dogs include:1

  • Joint pain and lameness
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sores and hair loss on the nose and ears
  • Abnormal nail or claw growth

Certain breeds like German Shepherds, Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs and Retrievers have a genetic predisposition for SLE. However, any breed of dog can develop this condition.

There is no cure for SLE but with early diagnosis and proper treatment, symptoms can be managed. Common treatments include:2

  • Anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Immunosuppressive medications
  • Topical creams and ointments

With medication and lifestyle changes, dogs with SLE can live fulfilling lives. Catching it early and managing flare ups are key to ensuring the best outcome.


Diagnosing autoimmune diseases in dogs can be complex since the symptoms often overlap with other conditions. To correctly identify the specific autoimmune disease, vets will perform a complete physical exam and take the dog’s full medical history into account. They will look for key signs like skin lesions, nail or paw pad abnormalities, swollen joints, and neurological issues.

Some diagnostic tests commonly used include:

  • Blood tests to check for elevated antibodies and signs of inflammation
  • Skin biopsy of lesions to analyze under a microscope
  • Bacterial culture to rule out secondary infections
  • Radiographs to assess joints and internal organs
  • MRI or CT scans to detect neurological autoimmune diseases
  • Nail and paw biopsies to differentiate between diseases

Vets may also recommend referral to a veterinary dermatologist or neurologist for further testing and analysis. While challenging, an accurate diagnosis is key to getting dogs the right treatment and management plan for their specific autoimmune disorder.


The main treatment for autoimmune diseases in dogs that attack the nails is immunosuppressants like corticosteroids. According to PetPlus, the corticosteroid prednisone is commonly used to treat autoimmune diseases in dogs and cats. Prednisone helps suppress the immune system and reduce inflammation. Other sources agree that corticosteroids like prednisone are the standard treatment for autoimmune disorders in dogs.

Veterinarians may also use other immunosuppressant medications to treat autoimmune diseases depending on the specific condition. However, corticosteroids remain the primary treatment. The goal is to calm the overactive immune response attacking the dog’s own tissues.

Treatment focuses on managing symptoms and minimizing flare ups of the autoimmune disease. Lifelong medication is often required to keep the condition under control. Close monitoring and follow up care with a veterinarian is recommended when a dog is undergoing immunosuppressive therapy.


While autoimmune diseases in dogs often can’t be fully prevented, there are some steps dog owners can take to potentially reduce the risk of their dog developing an autoimmune disease:

Feed a high-quality diet – Feeding your dog a nutritious diet with good sources of protein, vitamins, and antioxidants can help support immune system health. Avoiding poor quality or heavily processed foods may help reduce inflammation.

Ask about preventative medications – Some medications like cyclosporine may help stabilize the immune system in dogs prone to autoimmunity. Discuss options with your veterinarian.

Avoid over-vaccination – Only vaccinate as needed based on your dog’s lifestyle and risk factors. Over-vaccination may trigger autoimmunity in some dogs.

Reduce stress – Chronic stress can disrupt immune function over time. Providing a predictable routine, adequate exercise and mental stimulation can help.

Test breeding dogs – Dogs with autoimmune diseases should not be bred, as the conditions may be heritable. Test breeding dogs to avoid passing on susceptibility.

While following these steps may reduce the chances of autoimmunity developing, most experts agree autoimmune diseases can’t be fully prevented at this time, especially in dogs genetically prone to them. Early diagnosis and treatment remain key to managing autoimmune disease in dogs.


Autoimmune diseases that affect dogs’ nails are challenging to treat but often manageable with the right medications and preventative care. Onychodystrophy, pemphigus foliaceus, discoid lupus erythematosus, pemphigus vulgaris, and systemic lupus erythematosus are the main culprits. They cause nail deformities, erosions, crusting, and sloughing. Treatment usually involves immunosuppressive medications to calm the overactive immune response. Preventing exposure to sun, trauma, and infections may help reduce flare-ups. While autoimmune nail diseases in dogs can be frustrating for owners, vigilance about medications, diet, and lifestyle can help dogs live comfortably. Stay in close contact with your veterinarian if you notice any unusual changes in your dog’s nails. With prompt treatment, most dogs can live happily with well-managed autoimmune conditions.

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