By Paula Fitzsimmons
A malfunctioning immune system in dogs can open the door to a host of diseases, such as infection, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and cancer. Keeping your dog’s immune system balanced can help reduce these risks, and contribute to overall health and well-being, according to veterinary experts.
The immune system acts like a nonstop housekeeper, describes Dr. Donna Raditic, an American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) diplomate who does consulting on nutrition and integrative veterinary medicine in Athens, Georgia. It identifies potentially harmful pathogens like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites, then works to eliminate them before they can do harm. And a dog’s immune system monitors cells to ensure they’re working properly. “When other cells are aging or functioning abnormally—such as a cancer cell reproducing too rapidly—the immune system attempts to step in and maintain proper physiological function and balance,” Raditic explains.
When this system is compromised, your dog may become increasingly vulnerable to illness. An immune system that’s off-kilter for an extended period can lead to chronic inflammation, which, in turn, can forge a path for disease. Diabetes, osteoarthritis, some liver and heart conditions, asthma, and cancer are just some of the diseases connected to inflammation, says Dr. Ken Tudor, a holistic veterinarian and founder of The Well Dog Place in Claremont, California.
Fortunately, there are some simple, natural steps you can take to strengthen your dog’s immune system.
Encourage Your Dog’s Innate Love for Play
Keeping your dog fit is one of the best ways to boost immune health and promote overall well-being, Tudor says. Storing excess fat weakens the immune system, he explains. “Fat is the body’s largest endocrine gland, responsible for secreting more than 40 different inflammation-promoting hormones,” he continues. “Even the smallest amount of excess fat can increase the amount of these hormones in the body.” Exercise burns fat, which can help counter inflammation, and thus the occurrence of disease.
Dogs are naturally active, so adequate exercise and play are important to their health. But exercise doesn’t have to be a chore. In fact, it should be fun, says Dr. Laurie Coger, a holistic veterinarian and owner of The Healthy Dog Workshop. Activities she suggests trying with your canine companion include retrieving, playing, doing scent work, and learning tricks.
Ideally, any exercise program should be approved by your vet and based on your dog’s age, breed, and general health. Generally speaking, “if your dog is not doing a 15-minute mile, he’s not burning enough calories,” Tudor says.
Feed Your Dog the Right Foods
Your dog’s diet is a cornerstone of good immune health. “The gut contains about 70 percent of your immune system” explains Dr. Susan Wynn, an ACVN diplomate who practices at BluePearl Veterinary Partners hospital in Sandy Springs, Georgia. “The gut also contains your microbiome––the collection of hundreds of species of bacteria—and the bacterial balance in the microbiome is heavily influenced by the diet.”
Coger says dogs are designed to eat a moist, meat-based diet, yet “commercial dry foods are comprised of at least 40 percent starch.” The problem with starches, she explains, is that they promote inflammation. In Coger’s experience, vegetable and legume starches, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and lentils, are not as acidifying and inflammatory as starchy grains. Coger recommends a grain-free, starch-free (if possible) diet that also includes some fresh meat and vegetables.
Wynn adds that a diet containing a reasonable amount of good fiber and live bacteria from fresh foods is important to maintaining a healthy microbiome. “As an example, many raw diets that contain only meat and bone do not support the best microbiome for dogs,” she says.
Nutrition is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The best way to ensure your dog is eating an optimal immune-strengthening diet is to ask your veterinarian, Raditic recommends. “We have nutrition guidelines provided by research, but these apply to what we call the ‘generic dog and cat,’ not the individual,” she says. “Your veterinarian will understand these guidelines, but then must evaluate the individual patient and determine if these guidelines should be modified.”
Consider Certain Supplements For Your Dog
To increase the effectiveness of the immune system, you may consider supplementing your dog’s diet with certain nutrients. But Coger advises against buying a supplement for every possible condition. “Giving your dog many different products makes it easy to overdo some ingredients, and conflicting ingredients can interfere with absorption,” she warns.
Supplements that Coger does recommend are probiotics, which are coveted because they introduce beneficial microorganisms into the digestive tract. As Tudor explains, “Healthy gut flora promotes improved gut immunity, which has shown to promote improved internal immunity.”
If you’re considering supplementing your dog’s diet with probiotics, keep in mind that the canine microbiome differs from ours. So giving them the same supplement that you take, or treating them to a serving of yogurt, is probably not going to benefit them. A better alternative is to consult with your vet about dosing and appropriate probiotic species and strains.
Another supplement to consider is fish oil, which contains inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids. Tudor says fatty acids are essential because they temper the inflammatory response. Getting adequate amounts via diet can be tricky, however, so he recommends giving your dog a fish oil supplement.
Tudor also recommends curcumin, the active ingredient present in turmeric. Aside from containing anti-cancer properties, curcumin is also an anti-inflammatory and a pain reliever, he says.
When considering any supplement, understand that not all brands are created equally, Raditic says. “There have been studies where they looked at probiotics, for instance, and some did not contain what was on the label, some contained inactive bugs or wrong names,” she says. “It’s buyer beware.”
Coger advises buying from well-known companies that use high-quality ingredients and whose products are tested for purity. She says the presence of a National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) seal on a label is a good indicator that the product you’re buying is genuine.
Harness the Healing Power of Dog Massage
Touch, massage, and similar methods can be beneficial for dogs because they promote relaxation and healing, which, in turn, affect overall health, Coger says. While there is limited veterinary research on the effects of massage on animals, human-based studies have shown that massage can reduce levels of stress hormones in the body. In addition, a research review published in 2014 stated that moderate pressure massage contributes to “enhanced immune function (increased natural killer cells and natural killer cell activity)” among many other “positive effects.” Although we can’t be sure, it seems reasonable to think that dogs could experience similar benefits from massage.