Many illnesses can be avoided or alleviated by balancing your dog or cat’s immune system. Nutrition plays a big part in boosting his defences against disease.
If your dog or cat has a healthy immune system, he’s much less likely to get sick. In fact, the importance of a balanced, functional immune system cannot be overstated. It’s one of the foundations of good health, along with optimal species-appropriate nutrition and a strong, resilient frame and organ systems.
Immune health and nutrigenomics
Immune function depends on two factors: genetics and environment. Fortunately, there is a way to influence both an animal’s genetic inheritance, and his environment, to enhance the immune system’s ability to do its job effectively. It’s called nutrigenomics.
Nutrigenomics is an emerging science based on the theory that the nutrition each individual needs depends on his or her genetic makeup. Genes and the expression of genes are controlled by individual nutrients, which means each of us requires individualized functional nutrition to be optimally healthy. The right nutrition opens the door to a healthy immune system and resistance to disease. The key to unlock the door is personalized, balanced nutrition.
Early identification of cell markers can allow doctors to provide nutritional intervention and return patients to cellular health, avoiding genetically inherited disease. It’s important to understand how the nutrients we feed our dogs and cats will affect their genes, and therefore, their health. If we know which nutrients are essential for individual animals, we can impact longevity, reduce the risk of chronic disease, and help them heal from illness much more rapidly.
Every individual has a unique molecular dietary signature that determines which nutrients he should eat in order to thrive. If your dog or cat belongs to a breed that is genetically predisposed to a certain health problem, we can suppress certain genes through nutrition so they don’t express themselves, or encourage the expression of other genes.
For example, the feline heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is, in my opinion, rooted in nutrigenomics. Because amino acid deficiency from a dietary shortage of meatbased protein can fuel this condition, I strongly recommend that all my feline patients consume a human-grade, meatbased diet without fillers such as grains (many of which are genetically modified) and unnecessary carbohydrates that offset appropriate protein levels in pet food.
Another example is a very young dog or cat with multiple sensitivities that result in significant allergic reactions. In my opinion, there is a genetic predisposition – an IgA deficiency, perhaps – when this type of illness presents in a young animal. There’s no “cure” for the DNA the animal was born with, so the goal must be to help the body decrease expression of genetic weaknesses by modifying diet as well as environmental conditions (including the number and frequency of vaccines, evaluating the environmental chemical load, and addressing air and water quality).
When we look at heat maps created from DNA or RNA microarrays of an animal with a particular disease, we can see the enzymes that are turned on, upregulated, and pro-inflammatory. When we treat that animal with the appropriate food and functional botanicals, the same heat map technology allows us to visually witness a reversal of the inflammatory process
Nutrition for a balanced immune system
Around 70% of your dog or cat’s immune system resides in the gut, so immune cell receptors in the GI tract create an excellent platform for modulating the immune system through diet.
Immunonutrition refers to macronutrients, vitamins, antioxidants, minerals and trace elements that support the immune system through their effects on inflammatory processes, the action of white blood cells, the production of antibodies, and disease resistance.
What you feed your companion impacts her immune system on several levels. The first level involves providing basic essential nutrients (see sidebar), followed by delivering higher levels of vital nutrients, including:
• Protein and amino acids. Arginine is an amino acid that when supplemented in the diet has been shown to increase T-cell immune function. T-cell activity is critical to the immune system’s ability to respond effectively to pathogens and cancers. It’s nearly impossible to determine how much arginine is in commercial pet food, but chicken, salmon and eggs are excellent sources of this important amino acid.
• Essential fatty acids. Arachadonic acid (AA) is a pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acid found in high quantities in many inexpensive commercial pet foods. Supplementing with an Omega-3 fatty acid – ideally krill oil – decreases production of prostaglandins, which reduces inflammation throughout your animal’s body. Keep in mind that prolonged low-grade inflammation is one of the primary findings in almost every type of chronic illness, including arthritis, diabetes and cancer – all common diseases in dogs and cats.
• Vitamins and minerals. Free radicals are molecules responsible for aging and tissue damage. Antioxidants, in particular vitamins A, C and E, selenium and zinc, protect the body from damage caused by free radicals. When your animal is sick or otherwise stressed, free radical production increases significantly. Foods rich in antioxidants include fresh vegetables and fruits. Raw nuts and seeds are a great source of vitamin E, selenium and zinc. You can also offer your dog or cat a whole food supplement.
“Leaky gut syndrome” and immunity
Whenever there is an imbalance of bacteria in the gut, involving inadequate supplies of good bacteria plus an overgrowth of bad bacteria and sometimes yeast, it can lead to inflammation of the intestinal membranes, resulting in the condition known as dysbiosis or “leaky gut”. The most common cause of dysbiosis is the use of antibiotics. Antibiotics kill both good and bad bacteria, upsetting the natural balance of bugs and depleting the supply of friendly bacteria that keep GI immune defenses strong and resilient. Other drugs known to have a similar effect are corticosteroids, such as prednisone, and NSAIDS.
Additional contributors to leaky gut can include highly processed diets; biologically inappropriate foods containing a large amount of grains; food additives such as dyes, preservatives, surfactants, emulsifiers and flavor enhancers; stress; ingestion of toxins, including heterocyclic amines and acrylamides from extruded pet foods; vaccines (vaccines actually stimulate gutassociated lymphoid tissue or GALT); and parasite infections.
Typical symptoms of a leaky gut are gas, bloating and diarrhea. But dysbiosis can also cause or exacerbate a wide variety of other conditions, many of which may appear to have nothing to do with digestion, including hyperactivity, certain types of cancer, allergies, asthma, gum disease and many more.
For animals with dysbiosis, it’s not enough to provide proper nutrition, because their bodies aren’t able to make optimum use of the food they eat. As well, each case of dysbiosis is unique, so a customized healing protocol must be designed for each dog or cat based on his specific set of conditions. Dysbiotic animals have very fragile immune and digestive systems. A sudden change in diet or a harsh GI detoxification protocol could make them worse instead of better.
Dysbiosis treatment involves addressing food allergies and intolerances, as well as any underlying nutritional deficiencies caused by malabsorption or inefficient digestion. Holistic veterinarians prescribe appropriate strains of probiotics, enzymes, and a variety of nutraceuticals to help reduce inflammation and facilitate a healing response within the GI tract.
In general, removing highly processed, pro-inflammatory foods from a sick dog or cat’s diet in favor of species-appropriate nutrition; adding appropriate supplements to address inflammation, yeast and opportunistic pathogens, if necessary; and support of other organ systems, including the liver and pancreas, can relieve symptoms, address the root cause of the leaky gut, and get the animal on the road to recovery.
A high quality species-appropriate diet is a good place to start in keeping your dog or cat’s immune system balanced and healthy. Working with a holistic vet to create the best possible diet and supplement regime for him, as well as address any underlying deficiencies, allergies or other issues, can help build a properly-functioning immune system that’s neither under nor overactive.