Photo by flickr user RomantiQ

Strengthening Your Dog’s Immune System

When we think about the immune system we think about cells running around the body cleaning up messes, fighting off invading guys, and generally keeping things from getting out of hand. We might think that these cells come from the bone marrow, or the spleen, and they do, but the vast majority of the immune system is actually in the intestines or gut! A healthy gut allows us to digest the food we eat properly, absorb nutrients, and keep bad guys from invading the body. The gut is populated by some 13 trillion organisms per gram of stool! This is a delicate mix of good bugs (probiotics) and bad bugs (pathogens) and some that are just hanging out. Balance is what keeps us from getting sick. In other words, by the probiotics keeping the pathogens in check. If we give the gut things to digest that are not likely to cause fermentation then we keep the probiotics happy. If we eat things that are difficult to digest (like corn, sugars, sweeteners, fruits high in fructose, wheat, rye and dairy), then they travel undigested to the colon. They become fermented and produce gas, bloating and diarrhea. This throws the bacterial balance out of whack.

Fermentation creates many of the symptoms most of us loathe, such as gas that runs you out of the room at best or explosive diarrhea at worst. This is bad enough, but long term, the gut becomes unhappy and begins to get inflamed and this causes a chain reaction of events. First, as the inflammation starts, the gaps between cell walls grow larger, allowing partially digested food molecules to pass by the lymphoid organs and be absorbed directly into the blood stream. These lymphoid organs act as sentries for the body. Once these large food molecules are absorbed, the lymphoid tissue tells the immune system to go get the bad guys, which in this case is food that shouldn’t be getting through at this molecular size. Once this happens, the inflammation in the gut is further increased by the immune system response to help localize the “invaders” and make them easier to pick off. As you can see, this turns into a vicious cycle quickly. The more inflammation, the more reactive your dog becomes to what he ingests that wouldn’t normally be a big deal. It is thought that this process contributes not only to intestinal symptoms, but also to allergic skin diseases (your dog licking it’s feet when it comes in from a walk through grass, pollen, etc), autoimmune diseases like hemolytic anemia, dry eye, and of course food allergies.

So what do we do to help turn this situation around? Food testing via a blood sample is notoriously inaccurate to determine what is setting off the issue. Nutriscan is a food testing program offered by Hemopet that seems to be more accurate. A white blood cell response to an antigen test is not yet available for dogs. Functional Medicine offers some simple guidelines:

First, take Probiotics and Prebiotics! Prebiotics offer a carbohydrate source for the good guys to hang on to until they can get established in the gut. The dose of Probiotics needed is much higher than most people know. The optimal dose is a minimum of 25 billion colony forming units (CFUs), and ideally 100 billion CFUs. Most folks think yogurt when I start talking about probiotics, and it does contain active cells. But for frame of reference, a 4 oz container of yogurt with the highest amount of probiotics contains about 5 billion CFUs, and when tested for efficacy, less than half of the good guys are active. So you’d have to consume 40 containers of yogurt per day to even come close to meeting your daily requirements. The other issue with yogurt is that it has lactose, a type of sugar that can kickstart this whole inflammation cycle off as we discussed above. So using a Probiotic supplement would be a more efficient way to meet your pet’s daily dose requirements.

Second, use Fish Oil in very high doses to help control inflammation. This has to be added in gradually as it is rich and can cause digestive upset if added all at once. Use a product that has been processed cleanly and is monitored for contamination by heavy metals and other toxins.

Third, gradually switch over to a diet that is easily digestible, using foods your pet’s immune system has not seen for at least 6 months. The best way to do this is through home cooking, as long as you are being careful to balance the diet for calcium and phosphorous especially, as well as other nutrients. You can accomplish this by working with a veterinary nutritionist, or a veterinarian comfortable with advising clients about home cooking. Ideally, you would do a rotation and elimination diet for your dog, This is complicated, and requires choosing 3 different sets of protein, vegetables and carbohydrates and feeding each of the 3 sets on a rotating basis so that your dog’s immune system does not see any one thing for more than 24 hours. This will help bring the inflammation down more quickly.

If cooking is absolutely not going to happen, choose diets that have single protein, vegetable and carbohydrate sources. Buy small bags or batches of cans (better than dry), and rotate through them frequently.

There are several other things we can add in like activated charcoal to help absorb gas and toxins, food based supplements, homeopathic remedies to detoxify the immune system, acupuncture and chinese herbals. But if you start with the 3 steps mentioned above, your dog will thank you for it, and you will enjoy your healthier companion much more.

Ruth M. Roberts, DVM CVA CVH
Sun Dog Cat Moon, LLC
2908 A Maybank Highway
Johns Island, SC 29455
(843) 437-0063

A healthy gut allows us to digest the food we eat properly, absorb nutrients, and keep bad guys from invading the body.

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