The Immune System & Autoimmune Disease in Dogs & Cats
The immune system is an intricate biological protection system responsible for determining what belongs to and in the body, versus what does not belong and requires elimination. It defends the body against infection, disease and foreign substances. The immune system begins with the skin and digestive system, and incorporates the glands, hormones, blood, and organs throughout the body. Immune support for dogs and cats can go a long way in preventing ill health and chronic disease.
When we talk of immune support for dogs and cats, many people think of boosting or stimulating the immune system with herbs such as echinacea. Boosting immunity, however, is not always appropriate or required. In some cases, the immune system needs calming and balancing – as is the case for autoimmune disorders and frequently for chronic allergies.
Natural Support for a Healthy Immune System
A good, natural diet is the most important component in building and supporting a healthy immune system. Since your companion is dependent upon you to provide the best possible diet, it is prudent for you to educate yourself about the options available and the benefits of feeding the freshest, most wholesome diet you can. Please see our article, "What You Need to Know About Your Pet’s Food," for more details.
A top-quality diet, exercise, minimal exposure to toxins, and a low-stress living environment are of utmost importance to the health of your companion. If these elements are not attended to first, then adding supplements to support the immune system or balance it will be far less useful or effective. Giving immune-supportive supplements to an animal without attending to the foundations of good health is like trying to heat a house with poor insulation and broken windows – you can turn the thermostat up as high as you like but the house will still be cold.
Many factors can have an adverse effect on your pet's immune system, and addressing the following issues can play a big part in helping your pet stay healthy:
1. Minimizing pesticide & herbicide residue in foods
Pesticide and herbicide residues are found on nearly 50% of produce in a 2017 study, and 25% of grains. These are chemicals designed to kill living organisms – not something we want our companions consuming on a daily basis. Organic foods have been shown to have higher nutrient values than their conventional counterparts. There are more and more organic foods available for our companions, and some manufacturers make an effort to use free-range, hormone- and/or antibiotic-free meats in their products. While a totally organic diet can be a bit expensive for those with larger animals or many mouths to feed, adding some organic foods can be helpful in limiting pesticide exposure.
2. Providing fresh food versus highly processed food
Highly processed food, such as dry kibble, loses vital nutrients during the manufacturing process. Some vitamins and minerals are added back in – typically artificial forms of these nutrients. Fresh food contains enzymes that aid in digestion. Fresh vegetables contain antioxidants and vitamins in their natural, more absorbent form. As with organic foods, even adding a portion of fresh foods such as raw meaty bones or lightly steamed or ground vegetables to the diet can be beneficial to the immune system.
3. Avoiding Chemical Insecticides and Certain Flea & Tick Treatments
Chemical insecticides in your home, lawn and garden should be avoided for your companion’s sake. Our companion animals are much closer to the ground than we are, and breath in whatever chemical residues are on the floor and furniture. They also come into contact with chemicals used on the grass in your yard or local park. Animals groom these residues from their coat and paws by licking their skin and fur, thereby ingesting the residues. There are natural alternatives to the chemical products used by exterminators and used in lawn and yard care.
Conventional spot-on insecticide flea and tick treatments such as those sold in most grocery and pet stores are a direct assault on your companion’s immune system. The pesticides from these products are absorbed into your animal’s system, which may add stress to the liver and kidneys as well as the digestive system. Natural flea control options are safe and effective without negatively affecting your companion’s immune system.
4. Limiting Vaccinations
Vaccinations represent a major stress to the immune system. They can not only cause side effects and allergic reactions, they also contribute significantly to long-term chronic disease. Many holistic veterinarians agree that over-vaccination is a significant contributor to the rising rates of chronic disease in cats and dogs.
A limited vaccine program is highly recommended – and is especially important if your companion belongs to any of the breeds known to be more susceptible to cancer and chronic diseases. If your veterinarian is not supportive, you can look for a holistic veterinarian that may be more sympathetic. For more information about limited vaccination schedules please read our article, "What You Need to Know About Vaccinations."
5. Avoiding Overuse of Medications
Antibiotics and steroids are necessary tools in any veterinarian’s trade, but they are quite often overused. Repeated rounds of antibiotics to address chronic UTI issues or steroids to treat itchy skin and allergies tax the immune system – sometimes leaving the animal susceptible to greater health problems than it started with. A natural approach to chronic health issues involves supporting the animal’s system in its healing process without the use of strong medications.
6. Helping Your Pet Get Exercise:
Moderate exercise has been shown to improve immune factors in humans and animals. Proper exercise is essential in maintaining a healthy immune system. Natural light is also important, so walks in the great outdoors are the best option for dogs. Indoor cats should be provided with plenty of toys and climbing structures. Open the windows on nice days so your cat(s) can breathe some fresh air – this is helpful in preventing and treating respiratory problems. Weight control is also key – overweight animals are much more susceptible to chronic and acute diseases and infections. Proper diet AND exercise are needed to help with weight control.
7. Giving Nutritional Supplements
In addition to the best diet you can provide, there are some essential supplements that should be part of every animal’s daily diet. Essential fatty acids support healthy skin and coat as well as the digestive tract, which are the first line of defense for the immune system. Digestive enzymes and probiotics are vital for supporting good digestion, optimal nutrition and in maintaining a proper balance of balance of disease-fighting bacteria in the digestive tract.
8. Supplying Clean, Fresh Water
Depending on where you live, the tap water can be anywhere from almost acceptable to fairly toxic. The fluoride and chlorine, which may be added to tap water in some locations, may stress your companion’s elimination system. Filtered water is best, followed by bottled water and spring water. Flowing water will often encourage animals to drink more. Cats that eat a diet consisting mainly of dry food are chronically dehydrated. In the wild cats get most, if not all, of their hydration from the raw prey they consume.
9. Keeping A Healthy House:
Household cleaners and other products are another source of toxins your companion may have to deal with. Many cleaners, air fresheners, and laundry detergents contain bleach, ammonia and other chemicals that our companions breathe in and lick from their paws. Keeping the floors clean is important since the dirt tracked in from outside likely contains heavy metals and other toxins, but using more natural cleaning products will help keep the household healthier. Plug-in air fresheners are another source of indoor pollution – they may smell nice, but the petrochemicals that carry their scent offer a constant dose of toxins to you and your companion.
10. Minimizing Stress
Stress effects pets and people - it can weaken the immune system. Dogs and cats with anxiety issues of any kind need assistance in moderating their fears. Natural stress & anxiety support, like flower essences, homeopathic remedies and herbal remedies can be highly beneficial for animals with anxiety problems or that are under stress.
Behavioral modification training is essential for dogs with anxiety. Changing the environment in your home, for example, providing separate territories for cats that do not get along well, or additional litter boxes and cat trees or safe resting areas can make a big difference for anxious cats.
Remember to keep your companion’s emotional well-being in mind whenever there will be a change of routine. The holidays frequently involve many changes in environment and schedules, so think ahead about supporting their needs.
Supporting or Balancing Natural Immunity
Once all of these aspects of the foundation of health have been addressed, many chronic illnesses such as allergies, respiratory illness, urinary tract problems and digestive issues may resolve themselves naturally. Every holistic veterinarian has hundreds of patients whose problems have gone away without further intervention once the foundations of diet, exercise, minimal exposure to toxins and stress have been addressed.
Some animals, however, have been battling ill health for too long, or may have inherited susceptibilities to certain diseases, and their immune systems will likely need additional assistance. Determining the nature of that assistance is the first step. For some illnesses it is necessary to support the immune system – giving supplements that can increase the disease fighting mechanisms of the immune system. For other illnesses – mainly autoimmune disorders, it is necessary to balance or calm the immune system.
As you recall, the immune system's job is to eliminate foreign substances from the body. In autoimmune disorders the animal’s system has lost some of its ability to distinguish what belongs and what does not belong, and begins to attack the cells of its own bodily tissues. Autoimmune diseases can affect a single system or can involve multiple areas of the body. The symptoms of autoimmune diseases are often the same as those for non-autoimmune diseases, so proper diagnosis is crucial.
A partial list of autoimmune diseases in pets includes:
- Juvenile diabetes
- Autoimmune hemolytic anemia (reduction of red blood cells)
- Autoimmune diseases of the skin such as Pemphigus Vulgaris
- Myasthenia gravis (a nerve condition)
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Polymyositis (a muscle condition)
- Allergies (a hypersensitive immune system)
In the case of autoimmune disease, the immune system needs assistance in modulating its response. Plant sterols and sterolins are natural substances found in all fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. These plant nutrients have many unique health benefits including promoting balance of the immune system – providing support for an under-active immune system and modulating an overactive one. They provide support for the immune system to regulate itself and restore balance.
Antioxidants are also frequently helpful in treating autoimmune disorders as they assist the immune system in eliminating free radicals and reducing oxidative stress without directly stimulating an immune response. Antioxidants used to counter the effects of some autoimmune diseases include alpha lipoic acid, acetyl-l-carnitine, carnosine, coenzyme Q10, systemic enzymes, and rhodiola.
Boosting or stimulating the immune system is at times necessary for animals with acute or chronic illnesses or for those exposed to contagious disease. Viral diseases, infections and cancer are some of the disorders in which stimulating the immune system with herbs and supplements is called for. Many immune support supplements will include a combination of medicinal mushrooms, antioxidants, herbs that boost immunity such as astragalus, cat's claw, pau d'arco, echinacea or green tea. Other supplements to consider include colostrum, DMG, olive leaf, and Chinese herbal formulas. Using antioxidant supplements in combination with immune stimulating herbs and supplements supports the immune system to an even greater extent.
Puppies and kittens can benefit from colostrum to help boost their developing immune system for their first 3 to 4 months. Older companions may benefit from an immune support tonic formula. Tonic herbs are generally gentle, nutritive herbs used to stimulate and increase immune and organ function. They are commonly used for longer periods than stronger more specific herbal remedies and help the animal’s system handle the effects of stress maintain a healthier balance.
If you feel your companion needs immune system support, a consultation with a holistically trained veterinarian is the best place to start. Different conditions and disease presentations require different types of herbs or supplements. Diagnosis is also crucial so that an overactive immune system is not further stimulated with inappropriate remedies. For a qualified holistic veterinarian in your area, check the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association Referral List.
Information in this article is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure your pet and is not a substitute for veterinary care provided by a licensed veterinarian. For any medical or health-related advice concerning the care and treatment of your pet, contact your veterinarian.