Natural Immune Support for Dogs & Cats

Written by: Dr. Jean Hofve, Holistic Veterinarian, DVM

The immune system is a complex network of highly specialized tissues, organs, cells, chemical messengers, and hormones. The lymph system and lymph nodes, spleen, bone marrow, and thymus gland all play a role, as do white blood cells, antibodies, and complement proteins.

Two Types of Immunity

There are two main types of immunity, innate and acquired.

Innate Immunity

Innate immunity is the body’s built-in defense system, and includes the skin, immune cells and organs, the linings of the gastrointestinal, urinary, and respiratory tracts, mucous secretions, and stomach acid. Innate immunity is a non-specific barrier against injury and infection.

Acquired Immunity

Acquired (also known as adaptive immunity) involves the immune system’s further defenses against specific invaders that are created as the body encounters different pathogens through exposure, illness, or vaccination. The immune system develops a memory of each disease it fights and is able to quickly recognize and defend against the pathogen the next time it appears.

Immune Support for Cats & Dogs

Healthy Diet

Diet is always the first line of defense and is the foundation of health. If your companion is consuming highly processed food that provides only minimal nutrition and includes unacceptable ingredients, like toxins such as chemical preservatives, food dyes, texturizers, and other additives, their immune system is being depleted daily just to cope with that diet. Fresh, wholesome food is the first step in helping support a healthy immune system.

Many people wait until their pet has a serious or chronic issue or food sensitivity to finally change their pet's diet. Prevention is so much kinder and immeasurably more effective.

Feeding a varied diet that includes as much fresh food as possible and usually  entails more effort than scooping kibble out of a bag, but it is truly worth the effort in the long run. Healthy home made dog food mixes are a great way to get started with fresh food. And an initial investment in good-quality food will end up saving a bundle in vet bills down the road.

One of the benefits of a healthy diet is a healthy gastrointestinal tract. Supporting and maintaining a healthy bowel inflammation response of the digestive tract is important to help support overall health and immunity.

Digestive enzymes, probiotics, and essential fatty acids all play a role in gastrointestinal health and proper digestion.

Stress and Exercise

Stress suppresses the immune system. Our pets can experience emotional stress from any number of sources, such as territorial disputes among pets (especially cats, which is why you should always properly introduce them in a multi-cat household), social stress, and noise and light pollution. Exercise helps reduce stress and helps support and maintain a healthy body and immune system. Moderate exercise has been shown to support immune function in humans and animals.

Weight control in pets is also key; overweight dogs and cats are much more susceptible to chronic issues. Proper diet and exercise are needed to help with weight control.

Nutritional Supplements

Good quality natural vitamins for cats, especially daily multi-vitamin and mineral supplement, is a simple way to help support your pet's immune system. Alternating between vitamin supplements for your pet can provide a more varied source of extra nutrition. For instance, we often give a regular multi-vitamin at one meal and a “greens” supplement at another meal.

Antioxidants

Antioxidants for pets help with free radicals, support immune health, and maintain overall health. Antioxidants exist as vitamins, minerals, and other compounds in foods. They act as scavengers, helping support cells by targeting free radicals. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that the body produces normally produces, but if left unchecked, they can damage the body at the cellular level.

Vitamins A

Vitamins A, C, and E are the most commonly known antioxidants. Vitamin A is found in the liver and other animal tissues. It is abundant in fish liver oils such as cod liver oil. Carotene is a precursor to vitamin A found in plant material. Dogs can convert carotene to vitamin A by way of an enzyme found in the wall of their intestine. Cats, however, do not convert carotene well and must receive adequate vitamin A from animal sources. Vitamin A helps support the immune system by making white blood cells. Vitamin A also helps maintain healthy skin and mucous membranes, including in the urinary tract.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is the most abundant water-soluble antioxidant in the body and is manufactured in the liver and kidneys of dogs and cats. It is available from fresh or lightly cooked fruits and vegetables. Vitamin C is especially good at supporting overall health.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is the most abundant fat-soluble antioxidant in the body. It is present in many foods including vegetable oils, cereal grains, greens, liver, and eggs. It is particularly helpful in protecting against oxidation, especially in fatty tissues.

Other powerful antioxidants include green tea, co-enzyme Q10, bioflavonoids, N-acetylcysteine, proanthocyanidins, quercitin, and curcumin (from turmeric).

Holistic Immune Support for Cats & Dogs

Herbs

Cat's Claw

Cat’s Claw (Una de gato) has antioxidant and immune supporting properties as well as helps maintain cardiovascular health. Cat’s Claw is derived from a vine found in South America. It is often used in combination with other herbs. It can be useful in helping support a wide variety of systems, including cellular health, respiratory health, and more.

Chinese Herbs

Chinese herbs for dogs and cats are available in a variety of combinations for immune support. Astragalus is one of the more commonly found Chinese herbs in immune formulations. Selecting the proper Chinese herbal formula is not always straightforward since a variety of conditions need to be considered before deciding on the best combination, so sometimes the guidance of a trained holistic veterinarian is important.

Green Tea

Green tea contains polyphenols that support cellular health and help eliminate free radicals. Green tea also supports the production of a protein that maintains healthy cells.

Curcumin

Curcumin, from turmeric root, is a very powerful antioxidant and supports a healthy inflammation response. It has a wide range of uses for support and maintenance and is excellent for helping support cellular health.

Echinacea

Echinacea helps support the overall immune system. It is a good choice for acute use, but it is not recommended for long-term use. Echinacea works best when given to help support the immune system in times of stress.

Medicinal Mushrooms

Medicinal mushrooms for dogs and cats such as Maitake, Reishi and Shiitake help support T-helper cells and powerfully help maintain the overall immune system. Cordyceps is a Chinese mushroom high in antioxidants and helps naturally support cellular health.

Nutraceuticals

Colostrum

Colostrum is the first milk produced by mothers. Most colostrum commercially available is from cows. It has many immune supporting properties including factors that support T-helper cells. It may also help support the healthy digestion of essential fatty acids. Colostrum is useful for supporting and maintaining overall health.

Conclusion

This is by no means a complete list of immune supporting herbs and supplements, but it includes many of the most common of those used for general immune support. Again, a healthy lifestyle, including diet, exercise, and supplements, is the best course, but during times of stress, providing extra support for the immune system through nutrition, herbs, and supplements can give your pet the upper hand.

Additional Resources