Tabby cat lying down on a bed

Autoimmune diseases can affect any part of a cat's body.

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Weakened immune systems in cats

By Dr. Helen Donald BA BVetMed MBA MSc MRCVS Veterinarian

Updated on the

Why cats get auto-immune diseases is still a mystery, but as you'll see here there are many ways to lessen their effects.

Immune-mediated or auto-immune diseases occur when the body’s immune system sees its own tissues as foreign and starts to attack them. Cats seem to be increasingly affected by these diseases for reasons that we still don’t really understand and the conditions are probably under-diagnosed. They are not the same as immunodeficiency disorders, which cats are either (rarely) born with or (more commonly) acquired as a result of infections such as FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) or Feline leukemia virus (FeLV).

How can I strengthen my cat’s immune system?

Numerous supplements are claimed to help boost a cat's immune systems, but the evidence for them is limited. Probiotics and essential fatty acids, in particular salmon oil, may be helpful but always ask a vet for advice on what’s available locally and what they recommend it.

It’s particularly important to remember that not all products are benign and you could do more harm than good with products bought from the internet without consulting a vet.  The most important thing is to invest in a good-quality diet for your cat and keep them active, with a healthy weight.

What are the symptoms of autoimmune disease in cats?

Autoimmune diseases can affect any part of the body and cause a wide range of symptoms, many of which can be quite subtle. Often the first things a vet may notice is an unexplained, high temperature. Skin disorders caused by a disease called Pemphigus are occasionally seen in cats and cause blisters, ulcers and scabs on the face, groin or footpads. Cats may also occasionally suffer from immune-mediated haemolytic anaemia (IMHA), which initially causes vague signs such as weakness or a loss of interest in food, but can rapidly progress to more serious signs such as collapse, breathing difficulties, vomiting and diarrhoea.

What causes autoimmune disease in cats?

The reasons why some cats get autoimmune diseases are not well understood, sadly. There are theories that in humans and pets they are associated with modern lifestyles, but it may simply be that vets and doctors are getting better at diagnosing them.

How do you treat autoimmune disease in cats?

Some autoimmune conditions are fatal, if not treated. The first line of treatment is usually drugs that dampen down the body’s immune system, most commonly steroids. Cats with IMHA may need a blood transfusion. Depending on which autoimmune disease your cat has, there may be a good chance of recovery, but some cats will need treatment for life.

Is the cat illness FIV an autoimmune disease?

FIV, Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, is not an autoimmune disease and is, in fact,  closely related to HIV in humans. It’s caught from other cats, usually through bites, and disrupts the body’s immune system, making a cat more susceptible to infections. Cats with FIV commonly suffer from recurrent minor illnesses, particularly respiratory, dental and digestive problems.  Some cats can live happily with FIV for years, but they will need to be kept indoors to reduce the risk of picking up infections or passing it on to another cat.

What food should I give a cat with a weak immune system?

A good-quality diet is essential – you should ask a vet for recommendations on the most suitable food for your cat. If your cat is being treated with steroids, then it is a good idea to feed a low-fat diet because there is an increased risk of your cat developing pancreatitis.

When should I see a vet?

The signs of immune diseases can be very varied and similar to many other conditions. You should take your cat to a vet, if you notice any changes in their behaviour or health, even symptoms that you may not think are particularly serious, such as small wounds that refuse to heal or patches of hair loss, as these may be early signs of auto-immune disease.

What should I ask a vet about autoimmune diseases in cats?

You will almost certainly have lots of questions for the vet. Autoimmune diseases can be tricky to diagnose and tricky to treat, so understanding what is going on is essential, if you are to give your cat the best help. Yet it’s unlikely that you can discuss everything in a single visit. Ask a vet to recommend a website that you could visit that explains the particular disease your cat has, the tests requireds and how the treatment works. Also ask for any suggestions on diet changes or nutritional supplements that you could give your cat.

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