Akita immunity and autoimmune diseases

Akita's immune system is a protective mantle against the environment. Understanding how it works helps you keep it working fine, even in Akita's old age.

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Akita immunity and autoimmune diseases

The immune system in Akita defends the body from microscopic intruders through a coordinated action of specialized cells and their secretions. A foreign particle that enters the body (antigen) may trigger the immune system to produce a matching protein (antibody) to neutralize and capture it.

If the antibody works as intended, the antigen is smothered and destroyed. If not, these particles may damage the body. Microorganisms that can produce these particles damage the body, hijacking its cells and living processes for their own benefit. Most of them are opportunistic, exploiting existing weaknesses, though some can sabotage the immune system.

Skin and the mucous membranes

Healthy skin is covered in sebaceous glands that produce oils toxic to microorganisms. Antigens that pass that barrier get in touch with dendritic cells, specialized in capturing, analyzing and delivering them to the lymph nodes. The T cells in the lymph nodes receive the information from the dendritic cells and mobilize to attack the antigen. This process is crucial for the early detection and destruction of cancer cells.

Mucous membranes lining the respiratory, urinary and digestive tract can also be the first point of contact with antigens. Respiratory mucous membranes in the sinuses are covered in cells producing a runny fluid and tiny vibrating hairs (cilia) that move it along. Microorganisms get stuck in the fluid, where they’re met by 10–50 types of domesticated inhabitants. They neutralize each other, with the fluid carrying away the debris. The greater the diversity here, the lower the chance an intruder survives.

In environments with an overwhelming presence of a single antigen, it establishes a foothold in the fluid to ultimately infect it. The fluid thickens, blocking the normal outflow that would clear the debris, but also changes color due to microorganism growth. If the blockage isn’t cleared, the infection can spread to the lungs. Noisy breathing and nasal discharges are the most obvious clues there is a respiratory infection.

Lymphatic system

The circulatory system is powered by the heart to bring nutrients and blood to cells and organs; the lymphatic system is powered by the muscles to pump lymph, a white fluid rich in antibodies, to the infection site.

Lymph nodes that hold the lymph are bean-shaped masses of tissue that specialize in powering the immune system, such as by making T cells. The action of the lymphatic system and the movement of lymph is bolstered by exercise.

Swollen lymph nodes can be touched; the veterinarian will often check their size when diagnosing an Akita. If swollen, they indicate an increased activity, possibly due to fighting a disease that has not become obvious. The spleen is also a part of the lymphatic system, filtering out dead blood cells.


The production of lymphocytes begins in the bone marrow, with stem cells that will later differentiate themselves into either lymphoid or myeloid cells. The former will become T cells and B-cell lymphocytes in the lymph nodes; the latter will become red blood cells and platelets.

During creation, lymphocytes are tested through clonal deletion, a process designed to prevent autoimmune diseases — those lymphocytes that aggressively react against the body’s proteins are destroyed. There are many types of lymphocytes, such as:

  • phagocytes (devour intruders)
  • granulocytes (deliver granules of damaging chemicals on intruders)
  • basophils (produce histamine in the bloodstream)
  • mast cells (produce histamine in connective tissues)

There is a distinct hierarchy between them, with chemical signals such as histamine serving to facilitate lymphocyte access to tissues they are normally blocked from. Some of these lymphocytes persist for a long time, remembering which antigens were previously defeated.

Acquired versus induced immunity

The immune system keeps track of all previously encountered antigens and can produce antibodies for them for a while after. This is called “acquired immunity”, with the disadvantage that it takes days or weeks to develop.

Prompting the body to produce antibodies through vaccines, which contain weakened versions of microorganisms, provides the Akita with “induced immunity”. The advantage of induced immunity is the shortened time span before the antigen is neutralized, lowering the disease progression.

In any case, subsequent intrusions by the same antigen are progressively less harmful and take less time to clear.

The immune system in Akita puppies

During the first day of its life, a newborn Akita puppy has no immune system. It receives up to 90% of antibodies to diseases by suckling the mother’s milk. Antibodies transmitted through suckling last up to 20 weeks, weakening and degrading as the puppy grows up.

Past the 20-week mark, the Akita puppy should receive vaccinations to boost its immunity, though caution is warranted. Vaccines for puppies are stronger than those for adult Akitas to break through the maternal antibody defense. They can impair the correct development of the immune system if incorrectly timed.

If the puppy’s antibodies are too strong, the vaccine will provide too weak of a challenge; if the antibodies are too weak, the puppy might have already been infected by that disease. Consulting with a veterinarian to check the puppy’s antibody levels will indicate the right moment for a vaccine.

Inflammation and autoimmune diseases

The inflammatory reaction is a normal response of the immune system when encountering an antigen, increasing blood flow and temperature to quickly neutralize it. Histamine is the main pro-inflammatory chemical. If the antigen isn’t neutralized, histamine presence causes constant inflammation, which can lead to tissue and organ impairment.

When the inflammation is so severe that the body starts attacking itself, the Akita develops autoimmune disease. Inflammation is managed through antihistamines, which lower the histamine concentration, but autoimmune diseases require a whole range of treatments to keep them in check.


Autoimmune diseases have unknown causes; in all likelihood, the cause for any given one is a combination of genetic susceptibility and environmental triggers. Repeated exposure to toxins is a plausible cause of autoimmune diseases.

Some chemicals used in agriculture and industry resemble essential bodily chemicals, ending up integrated into cells instead of those from nutrition. If that happens, the immune system could trigger at a later time and attack itself for seemingly no reason. Research on fetuses and puppies shows they are the most vulnerable to such toxin exposure during the five months before birth and one month after birth.

Some parasites can mimic cells to avoid the immune response, causing symptoms close to those of autoimmune diseases. Two well-studied examples in Akitas are ehrlichiosis and babesiosis, tick-borne diseases mimicking autoimmune blood diseases.

Uveodermatologic Syndrome (UDS)

The most common autoimmune disease in Akita, UDS is closely tied to a poorly functioning thyroid gland. Its symptoms on average appear between 18–24 months of age as:

  • uveitis (eye inflammation)
  • retinal detachment
  • blindness
  • milky-blue eyes
  • fur whitening that starts on the face
  • vitiligo (loss of skin pigment)
  • skin lesions on mucous membranes and the pads of the feet

Stabilizing the immune system, preventing inflammation and saving one or both of Akita’s eyes are the primary goals of treating UDS, though that is done with medications that have side effects. Only a veterinarian expert can determine the right dosages that curb UDS while minimizing side effects.

Checking the Akita’s blood for underlying mineral and vitamin deficiencies and correcting them slows down UDS. Supplement the Akita’s food with the following:

  • vitamins A, B-complex, C, E
  • vitamin B-9 (folic acid)
  • vitamin B-12
  • zinc
  • selenium
  • manganese
  • copper
  • L-phenylalanine
  • methionine
  • co-enzyme Q10
  • n-acetyl-glucosamine (NAG)
  • bilberry
  • milk thistle
  • bromelain

Use combination supplements and minimal doses to build up the Akita’s tolerance. Supplement for 3 months, watching for signs of improvement, after which you may use these supplements indefinitely.


Scaly, crusty head and foot lesions are a strong sign of pemphigus foliaceus (PF) in Akita. Red spots turn into blisters, lesions and ulcers, with fur loss on the affected spots. As with UDS, thyroid function is impaired, leading to lethargy and possible joint stiffness. Pemphigus erythematosus (PE) is a milder form of PF, with only the head and neck lesions. They turn scaly and encrusted but may not break open to form ulcers.

Exposure to pentachlorophenol, a wood preservative, is a known direct cause of pemphigus, with some chemicals found in plants known to trigger it as well. For example:

  • thiols (found in onion-related plants)
  • phenols (petroleum-derived food additives resembling a natural metabolic byproduct)
  • tannins (fruit and vegetable compounds)
  • isothiocyanates (found in cabbage-related plants)

Disease management is through a low-carb diet, immunosuppressants and stress minimization techniques for the Akita. Work with a certified canine dermatologist to properly manage pemphigus.


Lupus is a catch-all term for autoimmune diseases of the connective skin layer. If the immune system produces antibodies reacting to random inert particles found in the body as well, the name is “systemic lupus”. Depending on where the offending particles end up, systemic lupus can attack different organs, mimicking any other disease, such as arthritis.

Lupus and its variants are diagnosed with a complete blood test and platelet count, which if lowered may indicate lupus. Antinuclear antibody (ANA) test is another useful diagnostic tool for systemic lupus, indicating the presence of antibodies reacting to body’s cells.

Permanent kidney damage is the most dangerous consequence of systemic lupus in Akita. Lower protein intake reduces kidney workload and the dietary cabbage-related plants may provide some protective nutrients. Vitamin E shields the body from oxidative damage, requiring at least 3 months of supplementation before showing benefits.

Antioxidants, anti-inflammatory nutrients and these supplements protect the Akita’s body from lupus:

  • vitamins A, B-complex, C, E
  • beta carotene
  • zinc
  • selenium
  • flax seed
  • fish oil
  • NAG
  • grape seed extract

Fish provides essential fatty acids and edible seaweed, such as nori, is a good source of vitamins and minerals. Sulfur and calcium supplements to strengthen the connective tissue may be warranted too.

Sebaceous Adenitis (SA)

Inflammation and destruction of oil glands in hair follicles has all the signs of being an autoimmune disease but is technically an infection. SA appears at the median age of 5 years, afflicting Akitas with an otherwise impeccable pedigree who may have already been included in a breeding program.

A vast percentage of SA cases in Akita is only bothersome, with skin thickening, hair loss, scaly lesions and a strong odor. SA can become life-threatening if a secondary infection develops. Scars are visible on affected skin even after SA subsides.

Medicated baths and consistent use of spray-on oils can lessen the symptoms and prevent secondary infections. Neem or colloidal silver ointments applied 2–3 times a day on the skin can also help.

Use the following supplements according to their dosage directions:

  • vitamins A, B-complex, C, E
  • folic acid
  • vitamin B-12
  • vitamin B-6
  • biotin
  • choline
  • selenium
  • copper
  • zinc
  • dandelion
  • burdock

Myasthenia Gravis (MG)

MG is an immune system reaction against a nervous signaling compound receptor, leading to depletion of one of them, acetylcholine. The outcome is muscle failure, especially during prolonged muscle contraction. Male and female Akitas are equally affected by MG. One plausible cause is insecticides, which act on those same receptors; another is exposure to heavy metals.

MG manifests as sudden fatigue, especially after exercise. Drooping eyelids are a telltale sign of MG, but so is involuntary vomiting. An MG-affected esophagus loosens up and no longer keeps the food down. Such food and liquids can be aspirated into the lungs, causing the Akita to choke and stop breathing. Undergoing anesthesia can also cause trouble to the Akita during and after the procedure.

Blood and enzyme tests don’t reveal the presence of MG, but giving a specific muscle-balancing drug does. An Akita that shows the signs of MG can be given a drug called “anticholinesterase”, which dramatically improves muscle fitness for a while. One such drug, Mestinon, restores normal muscle function within 4–6 weeks.

The Akita should take in softer or moistened foods to ensure smooth swallowing. Regular rest, some medication and a few precautions can make the Akita feel as good as new. Look for a local chapter of dog owners dealing with MG and join it for tips and support.

Hemolytic anemia

The immune system produces antibodies against the red blood cells. Since the bone marrow is responsible for the production of red blood cells, the immune system may end up attacking it as well. The result is anemia, lethargy and dark urine.

Extracting a sample of bone marrow diagnoses hemolytic anemia, though blood tests for anemia can indirectly confirm it; a dysfunctional thyroid gland is also common. Treatment increases Akita’s lifespan but the prognosis is negative.


Blood vessel injury triggers the platelets, the smallest of blood cells, to coagulate into blood clots to repair the damage. Blood that contains too few platelets doesn’t coagulate properly, leading to thrombocytopenia. The result is excessive bleeding, especially during surgery.

Thrombocytopenia is commonly found with hemolytic anemia; together they are known as “Evans Syndrome” and disqualify an Akita from breeding. Drugs, such as aspirin or antibiotics, are possible causes of Evans Syndrome. If the platelet count recovers after a drug is stopped, it is the definite cause of the problem.

A complete blood count reveals abnormal platelet counts indicative of thrombocytopenia. Treatment with thyroid hormones and immunosuppressants is enough to manage the disease. Taking shark liver oil supplements for 30 days fortifies the bone marrow, alleviating some of the symptoms.

von Willebrand’s Disease (vWD)

vWD is another blood clotting autoimmune disease, caused by the body attacking the protein coating the platelets to help them coagulate, known as “von Willebrand’s factor”. The first symptom may occur with the Akita puppy’s birth, producing abnormal bleeding from the umbilical cord.

Later in life, the bleeding may be internal or external, such as that of gums and nose. Lame gait, bloody stools and urine are additional signs of vWD. Positive blood tests for abnormally low levels of the vWD protein confirm the disease.

Degenerative Myelopathy (DM)

Nerves are coated in myelin insulation comprising fatty acids and proteins; the loss or degradation of this insulation causes nerve impulse malfunction that is eventually diagnosed as DM. Symptoms appear in adult Akitas, resembling the gradual loss of dexterity associated with injury or aging.

Weakness in hind legs, especially when getting up, is the chief symptom. Sudden collapse during walks is possible as well, though the Akita can feel it coming and won’t react with surprise or pain, making the owner ignore the symptom.

Loss of muscle mass and tone is the most serious consequence of DM. Consistent, low-level exercise coupled with stress reduction regimens and dietary supplements effectively controls DM. Swimming is superb, as it strengthens the entire Akita’s body without causing undue muscle strain.

Besides B-complex, C and E vitamins, one useful supplement is aminocaproic acid, given as one 500mg tablet three times a day. A cheaper form of it is a liquid, with two parts diluted in one part chicken broth to make it more palatable and given as 2–3 drops orally three times a day. Another useful supplement is N-acetylcysteine (NAC), one part diluted in three parts chicken broth, with the upper limit of 50mg of NAC per kilogram of body weight.

Akitas with DM should not undergo surgery or the condition will worsen.

Drugs for autoimmune diseases

Prednisone/Prednisolone — steroids with immunosuppressing and anti-inflammatory properties. Side effects include excessive thirst and hunger and trouble breathing. May cause secondary infections due to a weakened immune system. The dose is tapered by 50% with each passing week; the therapy lasts at least six weeks. Suddenly quitting these drugs may cause adrenal gland problems.

Cyclosporine/Neoral — a steroid-supplementing drug that blocks lymphocyte action. Used in small doses and with breaks, suppressing T cells within 24–48 hours. Side effects include abnormal hair and tissue growth, seizures and coma.

Azathioprine — slow-acting immunosuppressant used alongside the initial Cyclosporine treatment. Takes about 10 days to act. Interrupts DNA synthesis, with potentially serious side effects, such as liver and bone marrow damage.

Cyclophosphamide — destroys lymphocytes in high doses to prompt the immune system to stop producing the self-attacking ones. May cause vomiting, nausea and bladder and liver problems.

Acitretin — vitamin A analog, affecting the epidermis to establish a normal skin cell growth. Taking it with vitamin supplements may cause skin, vision and bone problems. If taken in too high doses, acitretin may cause hair loss, skin dryness and skin peeling. Liver function and blood tests are a good indication of how well the body tolerates acitretin and whether the dose is too high. May cause birth defects in male and female Akitas.

Tetracycline/Nicotinamide — a combination therapy used for pemphigus. Useful in Akitas that respond poorly to steroids.


Chronic struggle against the environment drains the body of energy and nutrients, opening the way for more antigens to seep in. If the Akita’s lifestyle doesn’t improve, the disease may become a chronic one, where the body keeps it under control but can’t fully clear it.

Exposure to environmental extremes and toxins stresses the Akita’s immune system, triggering the genes responsible for the autoimmune disease. In other words, if your Akita gets an autoimmune disease, it’s not your fault. Even those Akitas that go blind due to UDS adapt to navigating their space and can lead a relatively normal life.

Further Reading

The Akita Inu — Breed Characteristics

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Akita Joints And Spine Problems

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Communicable Diseases In Akita

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Eye Health Of The Akita Inu

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