Vitality as Medicine: Cultivating Healthy Immune Systems in Pets

Louis Pasteur, French chemist, microbiologist and founder of the field of medical microbiology, was said to have declared on his deathbed, “I was wrong. The microbe (germ) is nothing. The terrain (milieu) is everything.” While his exact phrasing is unknown, the intent of his statement is clear: the health of an individual plays a key role in determining who gets sick after exposure to infectious agents.

Much of medicine focuses on the prevention of disease transmission (hygiene, vaccinations, quarantine) and combating illness. While those strategies have merit and can be life-saving, bringing the focus back to individual vitality is the only path to true health—for people and pets. 

As cold and flu season approaches, the focus needs to be on maintaining a robust immune system, rather than relying on a “shot” or a pill as the first line of defense. The physical and social stresses of the season—such as colder temperatures, over-heated homes, travel or boarding during the holidays, and foods and treats outside of a normal diet—take a toll on pets, resulting in an increased susceptibility to contagious diseases and stress-related chronic illnesses.

The foundations of a healthy immune system are simple: diet, sleep and exercise.

  • Diet: Pets eating kibble and canned food with no additions of fresh ingredients are at higher risk for a number of chronic diseases and increased susceptibility to acute infections. Vitamins and antioxidants that play a key role in the functioning of the immune system are best consumed from whole foods, rather than a pill.
  • Sleep: Healthy sleep patterns decline in aging pets, and pets with chronic disease may also suffer from interrupted sleep. This can depress immune functioning and impair the ability of the brain to appropriately remove protein plaques in a “cleanse” cycle that happens during sleep.
  • Exercise: Obesity leads to an unhealthy cycle of increased production of pro-inflammatory compounds and stress on the body. Exercise is immune-boosting and keeping your pet active can help maintain a healthy weight as well as improve mobility and cognitive function.

About 70 to 75 percent of the immune system is located in the gastrointestinal tract, so it makes sense to ensure a pet’s digestion is functioning optimally. After correcting problems with the diet and ensuring other foundational needs are met, supplements can help prepare a pet for immune system challenges. These supplements are among those most needed by many pets.

  • Omega 3 supplements decrease systemic inflammation. Almost no commercial foods, even those supplemented with omega fatty acids, contain a healthy ratio of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Many foods are distinctly pro-inflammatory due to an imbalance in that ratio. High levels of omega 6 fatty acids are unhealthy and create immune system dysfunction. Choose a supplement that undergoes third party testing for contaminants and is ethically sourced.
  • Probiotics can help to re-establish a gastrointestinal microbiome that has been ravaged by antibiotic use or narrowed by chronic feeding of a limited and poor diet. A good probiotic should contain multiple strains of organisms, and soil organisms can be beneficial for many pets. Research is continuing to elucidate the beneficial immunological support that is provided by a healthy gut bacterial population.
  • Digestive enzymes are found in abundance in raw and fresh foods. Supplementing with a blend of enzymes is needed for pets that are unable to break down food adequately without assistance. In these pets, a blend of protease, lipase and amylase can help boost the assimilation of nutrients and strengthen the body against disease.
  • Fermented foods are another way to improve a pet’s digestion and gastrointestinal lymphoid system. Including fermented foods as a regular part of a pet’s diet has been shown to play an active role in preventing many types of bacterial infections. Lacto-fermented vegetables—found in the refrigerated section of most grocery stores—can be introduced into a dog’s diet. Fermented dairy products such as unsweetened, plain yogurt and kefir (goat’s milk is most digestible) can be fed to enhance microbial gut populations.

Sometimes a pet, especially an older pet or one suffering from chronic disease, needs more than the foundations of basic immune system support. A veterinarian trained in holistic modalities can select methods that may be of help, such as adaptogenic herbs for various stressors, acupuncture, chiropractic and massage for immune stimulation and balance, and homeopathy for healing and support. Strengthening a pet’s immune system is a gradual process, but achieves notable health results.

Dr. Laura Weis and her husband, Dr. Ransome Weis, own and operate Doylestown Veterinary Hospital & Holistic Pet Care, and Holiday House Pet Resort & Training Center, in Doylestown. She focuses on homeopathy and nutrition counseling for her clients within the full-service veterinary practice. Call 215-345-6000 to request an appointment. November 2018

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