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Vasculitis in Dogs and Cats

Basset hound dog laying on the floor snuggled up to a tabby cat

What is Vasculitis in Dogs and Cats?

Vasculitis is an uncommon disorder that can occur anywhere in the body of cats and dogs. It is a reaction pattern characterized by an abnormal immune response directed toward blood vessel walls, causing inflammation.

Vasculitis can affect the body generally or in specific areas. Systemic vasculitis is when the inflammation of the blood vessels happens generally throughout the body. Pinnal vasculitis is the term for vasculitis that affects the blood vessels of the ear flaps, also known as the pinna.

It is important to understand that vasculitis is not a disease in itself but a reaction to an underlying trigger.

What are the Causes of Vasculitis in Dogs and Cats?

The causes of vasculitis can be adverse reactions to drugs, infection, vaccines, autoimmune diseases, inflammation of the tissues that are close to the vessels, injuries to the blood vessel wall, or unknown (idiopathic) causes.

The damage caused can extend to the point of causing vessel necrosis (death of blood vessel tissue), which can lead to bleeding.

What are the Clinical Signs of Vasculitis in Dogs and Cats?

Clinical signs of vasculitis are related to the primary disease causing the vasculitis. Some common signs are weight loss, lethargy, lymph node alterations, fever, pain, hyphema (when the eye’s anterior chamber is bleeding), skin ulceration, skin necrosis, alopecia, and skin peeling. Oral lesions, when present may cause the animal to salivate, become anorexic, or be reluctant to open their mouth.

Neuropathy (nervous system disorders) has also been described in patients with cutaneous necrotizing vasculitis. It is common to see moderate elevations of liver enzymes and gastrointestinal inflammation as well.

Common symptoms of pinnal vasculitis are cartilage necrosis of the pinnal fold, painful lesions, and tissue death of the outer margins of the ear flap.

Close up of a dog's ear with pinnal vasculitis

How is Vasculitis Diagnosed?

The diagnosis is based on an assessment of clinical signs, animal history, and histologic and biopsy tests.

What are the Treatment Options for Pets With Vasculitis?

Treatment mainly consists of treating the primary disease which is causing the problem. Searching for the cause should be performed as soon as possible in order to define treatment options. The treatment protocol must be tailored to the individual pet based on the extent and severity of the skin lesions.

Administering medications and supplements that support immune system integrity and function may be needed. This is recommended even when the cause is not related to an immune reaction like in the case of an underlying autoimmune disease.

In cases where the exact cause of the inflammation is not known or the cause is an infectious disease, treating the disease and decreasing the general inflammation also decreases the reaction in the vessels.

Treatment may need to be addressed immediately with the veterinarian’s guidance if the diagnosis for cutaneous necrotizing and bleeding vasculitis was histologically confirmed.

Using pharmaceutical medications only when prescribed by a veterinarian decreases the chances of drug reactions that can lead to vasculitis.