Although a large portion of my job is seeing sick pets and counseling their parents on the best ways to get their furry friends back on track to good health, I greatly enjoy seeing perfectly healthy dogs.
But as a large portion of my job suggests, keeping our dogs healthy isn’t always easy.
Maintaining a strong immune system is an integral part of staying healthy, both for us and for our pups.
In this article, we’re going to discuss 5 big tips to help keep your dog’s immune system healthy and when needed, how to give it an extra boost.
When we think about our immune systems, we often think about lymph nodes, antibodies in our bloodstream, etc. But you may not realize that more than half of the immune system is present in the digestive tract.
But if you think about it, it makes sense. The one part of our body, other than the outer surface of our skin, ears, eyes, and nose, that gets exposed to foreign “stuff” from outside is our gut. From foods we eat to water we drink, and everything in between, our digestive tracts are exposed to a lot.
For dogs, this is possibly even more important when we consider some of their less tasteful habits. From licking his own behind, to drinking from puddles and streams, to eating fecal leavings of other animals, a dog’s gut is subjected to all kinds of gross things.
But while we don’t always have control over what our dogs get into all the time, we do have control over regular diet.
In general, it’s important for diets to be highly digestible, allowing the body to absorb as many nutrients as possible.
And in turn, it’s important for a diet to be well-balanced, with all the essential nutrients the body needs. This includes essential vitamins, minerals, and oils like Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. For a comprehensive list of these essential nutrients and what they do, make sure to check out 12 Essential Vitamins for a Healthy Pup.
There’s lots of different types of diets out there, so what’s the best way to know if a diet is balanced? Looking on the packaging for the statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is the best way.
The nutritional adequacy statement, as it’s called, is typically found on the back or sides of food packaging. This statement indicates that a particular food is complete and balanced for a particular life stage.
There are three ways this adequacy statement can be satisfied. The first is that the food has scientifically been formulated according to AAFCO’s nutrient profiles, which are based on the nutritional recommendations set forth by the National Research Council (NRC). This is kind of like saying that the diet looks good on paper, meeting percentages or concentrations of nutrients that many years of research have directed standards for.
The second way is that the diet has undergone actual feeding trials, following strict AAFCO feeding protocols that determine if a feeding trial is considered successful. The third way is a combination of both the scientific formulation and feeding trial methods.
While AAFCO is the best standard for food quality, it’s still possible a food simply may not sit well with your pup. Every pup is unique and different, and so is her digestive tract. Just like with people, some ingredients easily digestible for some pups may not be for others, leading to gas or soft stool.
In addition, certain protein sources, with chicken and beef protein being the biggest offenders, may contribute to the immune system becoming hyper-responsive, leading to either inflammatory bowel conditions, or what we call cutaneous adverse food reactions (CAFRs), aka skin allergies from food.
It’s always important to monitor your dog’s health while on any diet, because seeing these issues isn’t normal and could be food-related. If your pup is having any kind of digestive issues or signs of year-round skin allergy flare-ups, make sure to consult with your vet on some possible causes.
The last point to make is regarding raw food. As Dr. Ernie Ward, founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) refers to in his recent book The Clean Pet Food Revolution, pet food diets currently marketed as “raw” are anything but natural and they actually pose more health risks than they provide benefits.
A dog eating a piece of raw meat from the grocery store is not even close to the same thing as when a natural predator, like a wolf or coyote, catches live prey and eats it. When a predator catches live prey, the meat is fresh and without contamination.
But any meat that comes from a slaughter plant is always at risk of contamination from handling and processing and needs to be cooked. The bacterial contamination risk that any kind of raw meat presents can lead to unnecessary stresses on the immune system.
Raw food diets also tend to be very high in fat. And for dogs who are not working at a high level of performance (most of our average dogs), excessive dietary fat also contributes to its own immune stresses.
Keeping Trim and Staying Fit
Fat in general is very pro-inflammatory. The reason for this gets down to the real nuts and bolts of fatty components, called fatty acids.
There are two main types of fatty acids out there, omega-3 fatty acids, and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have natural anti-inflammatory properties and are found in certain oils like fish oil. These healthy properties are the reason fish oil supplements like Omega Gold with Salmon Oil are often recommended.
Omega-6 fatty acids tip the scales more towards inflammation. Inflammation is not all bad and is required by the body to a certain extent. Without inflammatory mechanisms, something as simple as a small cut might never heal.
But in excess, inflammation causes a perpetual cycle of harm to the body. Osteoarthritis, which most of us and many of our dogs will experience during our lifetimes, is a perfect example of how inflammation leads to tissue damage, further inflammation, more tissue damage, and on and on it goes.
Omega-6 fatty acids are far more plentiful in nature, and thus also in the diet. The normal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet should be about 4:1. According to a 2017 article in Healthline, the average Western diet runs anywhere from 10:1 to 50:1. In humans, this has increased the risk for heart disease, diabetes, and inflammatory disease.
So while fats are an important part of the diet and are needed by our bodies, it’s just as important to mind what types of fats are being taken in and to consider omega-3 supplementation to keep that ratio as close to 4:1 as possible.
It’s no secret that more than half of dogs in the US are overweight or obese. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, nearly 60% of dogs were overweight as of their survey results in 2018.
The pet obesity epidemic has been stagnant and relatively unchanging for several years. This may be partly due to how society perceives overweight pets as “normal” but also because there’s a perception that fat is “just fat”. Sure, maybe my dog's a little more tired. When he gets old he’ll have a little harder time getting around, but so do most old dogs, right?
Dr. Ward states in his article “The Secret Life of Pet and Human Obesity” that the real danger of obesity in pets and in people isn’t the fat, it’s the inflammation the excess fat tissue causes. Sure, the added weight that more than half of pets carry contributes to stresses on the bones and joints and makes it a little tougher to get around.
But the chronic inflammation caused by excessive fat tissue puts pets at risk for a host of systemic diseases including diabetes, hypertension, kidney disease, osteoarthritis, and even cancer.
Imagine the stresses a state of chronic inflammation places on the immune system. If the immune system is constantly chasing down the effects of inflammation throughout the body, this spares little resources to combat other causes of disease.
That’s why it’s so important for the health of your pup’s immune function to keep her at a good, lean body condition. If you’re not sure where your pup fits on the weight spectrum, make sure to do a weight check using the body condition chart for dogs found at APOP, along with their other resources.
Regular Vet Visits
Preventive care can sometimes be a hard sell. If nothing looks or seems wrong, why do anything?
Pets can hide signs of disease very well. Osteoarthritis in a dog may be severe by the time he starts actually showing signs of slowing down or having a hard time getting up after a nap.
And because of how well they can hide signs, we may not pick up on a disease process until we actually look for it. As just one example, I’ve diagnosed many pets over several years with urinary tract infections just on an annual lab work panel. Most of the time, their parents noticed no changes at home.
This is the benefit of annual visits to your veterinarian, with biannual exams for our senior pets over the age of 7 years. While I never hope to find something wrong on a physical exam for an otherwise healthy patient, it does happen. But if we catch something early, before it takes a toll on the body, there’s a better chance to resolve the issue.
This is also the benefit of running lab work annually too. The hope is that it will look normal, but when it doesn’t, we can take some proactive steps. Addressing underlying disease before it goes too far helps to reduce stresses on the immune system.
Another major part of vet visits are vaccinations. Vaccinations are an important part of keeping the immune system healthy. There are some diseases, certain viruses more notably, like distemper virus and parvovirus which the immune system has a very difficult time fighting, often leading to severe illness. Rabies virus cannot be fought off or treated at all, resulting invariably in death with an active infection.
The purpose of a vaccination is to stimulate the immune system ahead of time so that it can produce antibodies well in advance of the body encountering the specific pathogen, allowing the immune system to respond promptly.
There are some cases, fortunately very few, where the immune system becomes overstimulated by a vaccination, leading to a reaction. Most often this presents as some mild digestive upset, but can even more rarely lead to hives and swelling.
It’s important to vaccinate responsibly based on the likelihood of risks presented. Rabies, distemper, parvovirus, and some others are generally endemic in the United States and many places in the world, kept at bay only by vaccination.
But some vaccinations, like the one for Lyme disease, may only make sense in regions endemic for Lyme disease. Similarly, dogs that don’t spend time in boarding facilities, daycare, or at dog parks are at less risk of contracting dog flu and may not benefit as much from the canine influenza vaccine.
It can also be helpful, especially for small dogs, to spread out vaccine schedules, limiting to two vaccines at a time. This can be less taxing on a small dog’s immune system and reduce the risk of side effects like drowsiness and injection site discomfort, following a visit.
It’s well known that chronic stress can weaken the immune system, making the body more susceptible to illness. Now, you might ask “but aren’t vet visits stressful?”
This can be true, but vet visits are only one kind of stressor in a dog’s life. And as long as she’s relatively healthy, she maybe visits your vet just a couple of times a year. We also do have many ways of reducing stress during visits.
So what are some other stressors?
Just like people, dogs experience anxieties of many different types. Separation anxiety, when a pup becomes anxious when he’s left alone at home, is a condition we see often.
But we can also see anxiety related to interactions with other dogs in the home, changes in environmental conditions (nearby construction or loud noises), or even just a generalized disorder.
Stress, fear, and anxiety should not be disregarded. They can be diagnosable and treatable medical conditions. Pets with generalized fear and anxiety to multiple trigger sources can be suffering every day, really taxing the immune system and leaving openings for illness.
Mild cases of stress, fear, or anxiety can sometimes be addressed with supplements like Quiet Moments Calming Aid Plus Melatonin that contain some natural ingredients. But more advanced cases typically require medication prescribed through your veterinarian.
It’s also important to not rely just on medication alone. Behavioral modification therapy aimed at helping a pup cope better with stressors and triggers is needed for longterm positive change.
Sometimes, your veterinarian can provide simple tips or strategies. This can include advice like identifying and avoiding known stressful triggers. Reintroducing proper crate training for dogs with separation anxiety or providing companionship while you’re gone for the day via a dog walker, pet sitter, or trips to daycare.
But it’s also very common for us to refer pet parents with really stressed pups to a certified trainer or veterinary behaviorist to develop the best and most successful strategies.
Last but not least, there are supplements we can consider that can help to strengthen the immune system.
Coenzyme Q10 is also called ubiquinol and as its name suggests, is ubiquitous, or widespread, throughout the body of both humans and animals. It is an essential component of mitochondria, the structures in cells required for cellular energy. This makes it important for cells that require lots of energy, like muscle and brain cells.
CoQ10 is also a very powerful antioxidant, meaning it will scavenge for free radicals, which are unstable atoms that are normally produced by chemical reactions in the body, but which react with and damage normal cells if left unchecked.
In general, certain antioxidants have been purported to reduce the risk for certain cancers as well as chronic inflammation in the body caused by free radical damage, and CoQ10 is one of these.
According to Rania Gollakner, BS, DVM, MPH, CoQ10 studies in dogs are limited, but it’s been suggested that supplementing CoQ10 may be beneficial for heart health, gum disease, and certain cancers. Some veterinarians will also use it for patients with chronic inflammatory conditions.
There can be some precautions starting CoQ10 in pets with some conditions or on certain medications, so it’s best, as always, to discuss details with your vet prior to starting any new supplement.
As mentioned early on, digestive health is very important for a healthy immune system. Part of that is keeping the normal populations of bacteria in balance.
The goal of a probiotic is to repopulate the gut with the beneficial, symbiotic bacteria that help with digestion and health. If populations get out of balance, such as with overgrowth of clostridial bacteria, we can see issues with digestion, diarrhea, and chronic bowel inflammation.
It’s important when considering a probiotic to utilize one for dogs, like Advanced Probiotics and Enzymes, as the strains of beneficial bacteria may be different compared to human probiotic products. And while feeding a spoonful of unflavored yogurt with meals doesn’t hurt, that one scoop likely doesn’t have the types or number of cultures necessary to make a significant difference.
Some dogs may also require a prescription-strength probiotic, which typically has much higher numbers of colony-forming units (CFUs) of bacterial strains.
There are literally hundreds of different types of mushrooms of all shapes and sizes. Some are delicious to eat (one of my favorite pizza toppings), some are considered pests when they grow unsightly clumps of themselves in the yard, and some are toxic, causing severe illness.
And there are a couple specific ones that have shown clear benefit for immune support. So beneficial in fact, that they are used by many oncologists in treatment of certain cancers.
The most well-recognized medicinal mushrooms are the turkey tail, reishi, maitake, and shiitake mushrooms.
According to Steve Marsden, a foremost holistic veterinarian, the main ingredients in specific beneficial mushrooms that provide for anti-cancer and immune-stimulating effects are called immune polysaccharides, or beta-glucans.
They primarily exert their effects on T-cells and the cell-mediated part of the immune system that seeks out and directly kills abnormally affected cells, whether from cancer, infection, or other causes.
Mushroom polysaccharides have been shown to prevent production of certain tumors, contribute to direct effects against cancer cells, and prevent metastatic spread of some malignant tumors.
Medicinal mushrooms, as found in Mushroom Max Advanced Immune Support with Turkey Tail, are considered to be very safe for both people and pets. However, it’s always important to remember that the average mushroom growing in your yard may not be safe and identifying wild mushrooms can be especially tricky. So it’s best to stick with prepared forms made for pets.
Echinacea, also known as the purple coneflower, is a plant widely known for its immune-boosting properties, especially in the case of upper respiratory signs like the common cold.
According to Dr. Gallakner, there are limited studies in pets, but there is some evidence that echinacea can reduce inflammation and the severity of upper respiratory symptoms by enhancing immune function. It appears to be safe and well-tolerated in most cases.
What About Vitamin C?
It’s very common for people to take vitamin C supplements either when they're feeling sick or as a preventative to try to fend off an impending bug like the flu or common cold.
Vitamin C is an essential vitamin for all animals, being required for protein synthesis, development of collagen in connective tissues, and for certain neurotransmitters in the brain, according to NIH.
It’s also a powerful antioxidant and may be beneficial to supplement in some cases. But everyday supplementation is probably unnecessary for dogs and that’s because dogs can actually make their own.
Guinea pigs, humans, and a couple other mammals have the distinction of not being able to synthesize their own Vitamin C. So while humans and our guinea pig friends need to make sure we’re eating Vitamin C rich foods like fruits and green veggies, dogs (plus cats and almost every other animal) do just fine on their own.
Finding the Balance
Keeping the immune system healthy is all about keeping things in balance. That’s a theme you’ve seen throughout this article, with the GI tract by keeping bacteria in balance, to keeping a healthy weight, to balancing out causes of fear and stress for pups.
Sometimes supplementing may even be what’s needed to help re-establish balance in certain situations.
If you have concerns about your pup’s health or immune function, make sure to discuss your concerns with your veterinarian. Not every immune system booster you read about will work wonders. But since many can be beneficial in certain cases, discussing those details, as well as sourcing and how much to give for particular supplements, are a good idea before starting something new.
We all want our pets to live happy, healthy lives for as long as possible. The key to this, as highlighted in this article, is preventive care. For some more preventive health care tips, make sure to check out 5 Preventive Health Tips Every Dog Owner Should Know.