A-Z of dog wellbeing: Immune system

The immune system is made up of special cells, proteins, tissues, and organs that work together to defend our dogs against germs and microorganisms. When they’re at the top of their game, this system of body defenders can recognise and annihilate any invading viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites, but sometimes problems with the immune system can lead to illness and infection.

A healthy, properly functioning immune system operates like the world’s most omnipotent drug. A malfunctioning immune system in dogs can open the door to a host of diseases, such as infection, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and cancer.

I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel, so here is a detailed article about how the immune system functions.

Problems of the Immune System

The immune system helps the dog when it responds appropriately, identifying and eliminating invaders before they threaten or inhibit the dog’s health. But the immune system can fail to do its job, responding to invaders in three negative ways:

Overactive immune response
An allergic response happens when the immune system overreacts to exposure to antigens in the environment. Common allergies most often result from immune overreaction to airborne agents such as dust, chemicals, fleas, mites, seasonal pollens, fungi, and certain food proteins such as chicken.

Humans tend to manifest allergies in our nose, throat, or eyes.  We’ve all seen someone suffering with hayfever who looks like they have a terrible cold. Dogs however mostly manifest allergies in the skin, leading to itchy, flaky skin that causes hot spots and scratching, or in the stomach.

Inappropriate immune response
In autoimmune disorders, the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s healthy organs and tissues as though they were foreign invaders.

One of the most common auto-immune conditions that beset dogs (and their humans) is arthritis which is caused when antigens and antibodies, failing to react in the normal way, join in a cellular structure which migrates into various joints. These immune complexes, in turn, chemically summon other immune cells, which together cause long-term and often debilitating inflammation.

Inadequate immune response
With immune deficient disorders, the immune system fails to work as aggressively as it needs to, or fails to respond to invading pathogens at all. This is often spotted when an animal makes multiple visits to a vet for infections that would normally be relatively easy to control.

1 in every 2 dogs will now be touched by cancer – a shocking statistic that has only spiked since the introduction of high carbohydrate dog kibble in the last 50 years – and are caused when the immune system fails to recognise and control abnormal cell growth as the tumour cells often closely mimic the healthy cells from which they mutated. The relentless and often unstoppable disease called cancer occurs when, presented with this recognition challenge, the immune system fails to identify and ‘kill’ the abnormal cells.

As a pet parent, I’d highly recommend you learn about immune disorders in general, and those that are mostly like to affect your dog’s breed in particular, so you can offer proactive, preventative care. Here’s a good starting point to read more about autoimmune problems.

Medical science has historically focused on ‘fighting disease’, looking for drugs that could destroy bacteria, viruses, and tumours once they take hold.
In the last 20 years or so, scientists have come to realise that treatments that help optimise the immune response might be just as effective, if not more effective, at preserving health and preventing disease.

How to boost your dog’s immune system

Feeding your dog a good diet is the foundation of good immune health because the gut contains about 70% of your immune system, and what your pet eats eat hugely influences their gut microbiome.

Dogs are designed to eat a moist, meat-based diet, yet commercial dry foods are comprised of at least 40% starch (which is just sugar and this promotes inflammation and feeds cancer). A species-appropriate diet that includes fresh meat and vegetables is ideal as these fresh foods provide fibre and live bacteria which is vital to maintaining a healthy microbiome.  Read my earlier post on diet for more detail.

Helping your dog stay slim is one of the best ways to boost immune health and promote overall well-being. Fat is the largest endocrine gland, responsible for storing and secreting more than 40 different inflammation-promoting hormones. Even the smallest amount of excess fat can increase the amount of these hormones in the body, so by reducing body fat we can help counter inflammation, and thus the occurrence of disease.

Exercise releases endorphins, decreases stress, promotes circulation, and lowers blood pressure – plus dogs love it! Because the benefits of exercise are so plentiful, dogs should be encouraged to be as active as their age and physical health will allow.

Roo licking his lips

Offer your dog nutrients that help them maintain homeostasis. Long before your pet shows any symptoms your vet can diagnose they will be aware of what they need to restore themselves back to full health and balance.  Offering remedies as a preventative measure can reduce or prevent illnesses and improve quality of life. Herbal self-medication can support your dog with:

  • Overactive immune responses: allergies, detox after vaccinations and flea/worm treatments, poor digestion and stomach issues, eye and ear conditions, skin, nail/hoof and coat conditions, respiratory problems
  • Inappropriate immune responses: mobility problems including arthritis, pain and inflammation in joints, nerves and muscles
  • Inadequate immune responses: infections and viruses, fleas and worms, tumours and growths

Canine massageLower your dog’s stress levels by making sure they get sufficient sleep and with the relaxation and healing offered by massage. Swedish Massage and Myofascial Release can reduce levels of stress hormones in the body while moderate pressure massage contributes to enhanced immune function (increased natural killer cells and natural killer cell activity) among many other positive benefits.