In my many years of caring for rescue dogs, I’ve encountered some unusual canine ailments. But there’s one I’d never heard of until very recently. It’s an immunemediated disease called discoid lupus erythematosus (or discoid lupus for short). It’s often confused with solar dermatitis or ringworm.
I recently rescued a lovely female German shepherd. Since I’ve always admired this breed but never lived with one until now, I’ve been doing some research into them. I learned, among other things, that German shepherds are on the short list of breeds predisposed to discoid lupus. The others are collies, Shetland sheepdogs, huskies, Brittany spaniels, and German shorthaired pointers.
If you fancy any of these breeds, or have adopted a mixed dog that has one or more of these breeds in his makeup, you’ll want to educate yourself about discoid lupus and how to cope with it. If not properly diagnosed and treated, it can cause your dog serious discomfort and diminish his quality of life.
Skin signs and symptoms
“The symptoms of discoid lupus include loss of pigment, redness, scaling or crusting of the nose with loss of the nose’s normal ‘cobblestone’ appearance,” says Dr. Heather Peikes, a board-certified dermatologist at New York City Veterinary Specialists. “Loss of pigment and cobblestone are earlier symptoms; later symptoms include ulceration and crusting, especially when a secondary bacterial infection is present. The most common area to be affected is the nose, but discoid lupus can also affect the bridge of the nose. Less common areas to be affected include around the eyes, the ear flaps, lipfolds, genitals or anus.” Dr. Peikes adds that discoid lupus is not related to systemic lupus in any way.
How does it feel to have this condition? “Early pigment changes do not lead to discomfort,” Dr. Peikes says. “But more chronic cases can be itchy or uncomfortable. If the nose is affected, ulceration close to the blood vessels can lead to bleeding. If the vulva is affected, it can lead to pain when urinating. The most common disease to cause similar symptoms is a bacterial infection.”
Allopathic and alternative treatments
Conventional treatment involves a course of oral antibiotics for six weeks based on a culture, to rule out skin infection. “If the condition is not improving, a skin biopsy is necessary to diagnose discoid lupus; the biopsy usually requires general anaesthesia,” Dr. Peikes says. “After treatment, the prognosis is usually good. In mild cases, topical treatment alone may be able to manage symptoms.”
Initially, steroids would be used, then an attempt would be made to use less potent medications. Topical tacrolimus has been helpful in managing cases, Dr. Peikes allows, but it can take a few weeks to see improvement.
The administration of oral vitamin E, either alone or with a combination of Omega 3 and Omega 6 essential fatty acids, may be helpful as an adjunct treatment. “I remember a dog named Sam, an eight-year old female Lab who was experiencing nasal ulceration and crusting as well as ulceration of the vulva,” Dr. Peikes says. “We treated her with vitamin E, Omega 3 and 6, and topical application of tacrolimus. Sam had been very painful when urinating, and was rubbing her nose until it bled. After treatment, she was a much happier and more comfortable dog.”
• Sun exposure seriously aggravates the symptoms of discoid lupus, so sun avoidance and/or suncreen application is strongly recommended. When selecting UV protection for your dog, read the ingredients and avoid all products that contain zinc oxide, which is toxic to animals if licked off. A safe bet for preventing and soothing canine sunburn include products such as Natural Dog Snout Soother (naturaldogcompany.com), a blend of shea butter, kukui nut oil, and vitamin E.
• Neem oil, an extract of the neem tree, has been used for centuries to heal a variety of skin irritations and burns on animal and human skin. An added benefit is that neem is a natural insect repellent – and keeping germ-carrying pests away from the vulnerable nose of a discoid lupus dog is critical to help avoid infection.
• Stress can trigger a flare-up of the condition. Holistic veterinarian Dr. Michele Yasson recommends adding a few drops of Rescue Remedy to your dog’s water to help him cope with stressful situations such as long-distance travel, moving house, or other changes.
• Perhaps most important for a dog with discoid lupus is to implement what Dr. Yasson calls an anti-inflammatory lifestyle. “Feeding an anti-inflammatory diet that contains no grains is imperative, and so is avoiding vaccinations,” she says.
If your dog has been diagnosed with discoid lupus, locate an integrative vet who will draw on a variety of options to ease the condition. A well-rounded treatment approach will give your companion the best possible chance of staying comfortable and happy.