How often do we see dogs with dry flaking skin, thinning coats, runny eyes, chronic inflammation, excessive foot licking, hot spots, chronic diarrhea, and hyperactivity, the inability to gain weight, have mood swings and go through other changes? To fix these issues, we try different dog foods; make multiple visits to the veterinarian to get repeat doses of antibiotics, steroids and special shampoos. Oftentimes however, despite our diligence, the symptoms almost always reappear in a just a few weeks. If they do, we start the treatment cycle of drugs and bathing all over again.
The most common diagnoses for these symptoms are flea allergy dermatitis, environmental allergies, food intolerance, or a lack of fatty acids in the diet. Treating skin disorders is one of the most frequent reasons we make trips to our veterinarian’s office. However, in many cases, these symptoms are the visible consequences of a more important underlying condition that involves the immune system! The symptoms can be the result of either an under active immune system or and over active immune system.
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Under Active Immune System (Suppressed)
A suppression of the immune system can occur when the body’s system is compromised by immune suppressing factors. These can include over vaccination, vaccinating during a bitch’s heat cycle or pregnancy, over-use of antibiotics, the use of steroid drugs, protein malnutrition (poor protein sources in the diet), insufficient calories, vitamin or mineral insufficiencies, hormonal fluctuations (often caused by the thyroid gland), and viral or bacterial infections. Other illness and systemic diseases can also lower the immune system. Some of these include diabetes, renal failure, systemic lupus erythematosus and neoplasia.
A suppressed immune system leaves the dog with an insufficient ability to fight off bacteria and viruses and environmental pollutants such as pesticides, herbicides and other toxins. The dog lacks the ability to develop normal immunity to everyday pollutants and common infections that other dogs can fend off naturally. A compromised immune system leaves the dog prone to opportunistic infections and makes them more susceptible to cancer.
Overactive Immune System (Autoimmune)
When your dog has an overactive immune system, it can lead to a variety of autoimmune diseases. When this happens, the body literally overreacts to normal agents found in the body and develops antigens to destroy them. The immune system goes into ‘overdrive,’ and not only tries to destroy the cells it may see as bacteria, but it can start to destroy normal red blood cells. The body will begin to see these cells as ‘foreign’ and react to them by developing skin allergies, hot spots, teary eyes and other common symptoms of allergic response.
These diseases can be either acquired or congenital (born with them). Information from Cornell University indicates that the acquired immune-deficiencies are more common than the congenital ones. Acquired immunodeficiency’s can be triggered by:
– Puppies not receiving colostrum during the first 48 hours of life
– Parvo or distemper infection
– Drug reactions
– Over Vaccinations
– Modified live vaccination response
– Poor diet or malnutrition
– Chemicals in the environment
Some of the drugs implicated in triggering autoimmune responses include anti-convulsants and potentiated sulfonamides. The new anti-inflammatory drugs for dogs are also suspected in some reactions as well. The diseases listed above, as well as poor nutrition and vaccinations can cause the immune system to over-react by reacting to the ingested material, injected antibodies, or their struggle to fight off bacteria and virus.
Other drugs, such as cortisone, prednisone and other steroids, work to suppress the immune system (therefore reducing allergic reactions), but this further suppression can cause more health problems. As soon as these drugs are removed, the symptoms usually come back which can compromise the immune system further leaving the dog even more susceptible to further infection or other health issues. Antibiotics may suppress the immune system and unselectively kill all bacteria, which can remove the good bacteria in the digestive system.
Chemicals that can affect the immune system include pesticides, herbicides and household cleaners. Dogs are lower to the ground and have a greater tendency to be closer to yard chemicals, agents used in the house for cleaning and pest control, and chemicals used in carpets for stain and dirt resistance.
Some of the same things that trigger autoimmune disease can also lower (suppress) the immune system, so it can be difficult to determine whether the problem is an under- or over-active immune system problem. An accurate diagnosis is needed and a blood panel can oftentimes determine if you are dealing with an autoimmune diseases.
Let’s briefly examine some of the more common autoimmune disorders.
The thyroid gland is essential to stimulate cells in the body to make proteins. The thyroid is also important to maintain a good metabolism and energy, and for controlling the body’s sensitivity to hormones. When this gland is not working properly, the first symptom is typically poor coat quality with thin and brittle hair. Other symptoms can be obesity, low energy, difficulty staying warm, irregular estrus cycle, low stamina, and poor resistance to infections. A blood panel can be drawn to test for this disease, but the timing and type of test are important. Yearly tests need to be continued to monitor the thyroid. There are some speculations that low thyroid can be caused by poor diet (too many carbohydrates and sugars and not enough animal based protein) and a selenium deficiency.
This disease shows its symptom through loss of pigment. It will generally appear as white hair growth in a ‘ticking’ pattern anywhere on the body. The pigment of the mouth can mottle or turn pink, and toenails and areas around the eyes can turn white. It is an autoimmune response, in that the body suddenly starts destroying the melanocytes, or the cells that produce pigment. It can be associated with diabetes, Addison’s Disease and hypothyroidism. Although no medical treatments are known, good nutrition and the use of antioxidant drugs have shown results in helping stop this condition from becoming worse. Always do a 6-panel thyroid blood test if this condition occurs, as it can be linked to hypothyroidism.
This condition is caused by an underactive adrenal gland. Sometimes this can be caused by long-term use of cortisone drugs which can cause the adrenal glands to shrink in size. Symptoms include discoloration and darkening of the skin, diarrhea, weight loss, losing coat hair in patches, and increased thirst. The dog may seek heat, walk unsteady, and have mood swings. The danger of this disease is that the symptoms can wax and wane, and therefore is often misdiagnosed and treated as other conditions. If suspected, an ACTH blood test is recommended for diagnosis.
The opposite of Addison’s disease, Cushing’s syndrome is an overactive adrenal gland. Symptoms of this disorder include a heavy or rounded body with thin limbs, along with wasting of the muscles. Sometimes increased body hair will appear. Calcinosis can occur with Cushing’s – please read more below.
The anemia in hemolytic anemia is caused by the over-reacting to an antigen, which in turn can attach itself to the red blood cells. The body then begins to destroy its own life supporting red blood cell supply. This most often affects young adults, and females are affected more often than males. Treatment is most often cortisone-type drugs to suppress the over active immune system. However, this is turn suppresses the already compromised immune system. Sometimes this disease is so aggressive that chemotherapy drugs such as cytoxin are used to further suppress the immune system. There is speculation that certain prescription drugs such as NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs), anti-seizure medications and vaccinations can often initiate this autoimmune disorder.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)
Lupus can affect the joints, red blood cells, and skin. It is also called the ‘great imitator’ as it mimics many other diseases. One symptom is loss of hair on the face, across the nose and cheeks. Treatment is similar to that of hemolytic anemia. Lupus generally affects females more than males.
The symptoms of uvietis generally are a drying and reddening of the eye, which typically starts with a minor eye irritation. Again, the body over reacts with antigens in the eye where the body begins to destroy the good cells. The result is inflammation of the eye and eye tissue.
This is a congenital, or acquired, disorder of the lymphatic system resulting in fat and protein malabsorption, with a protein-losing enteropathy. Typical symptoms include weight loss, fluid in the abdomen, vomiting and diarrhea.
Diagnosis is made from an intestinal biopsy, or examination of stool for elevated fecal alpha-l-antitrypsin levels (acts as a marker for protein-losing enteropathies). This disease is often confused with irritable bowel syndrome and colitis, although there is speculation they may be related. This disease has responded well to reducing long-chain fats in the diet and adding medium-chain triglycerides.
Good nutritional support is indicated, as well as vitamin supplementation. The best support is a moist diet, either raw or home cooked.
Calcinosis Cutis or Circumscripta
The Calcinosis Cutis usually affects larger areas (such as the skin) with Calcinosis Circumscripta affecting one area in bumps or cyst like formations in the foot, leg, occiput of the head or tongue. When these lesions, or affected areas, are opened, usually a white thick discharge occurs that is composed of calcium. It is thought these occur from too much cortisol production in the body, overuse of steroids or renal failure, and some can just be idiopathic. In the Calcinosis Circumscripta, surgical removal is advised. In skin conditions, testing the cortisol levels of the dog and NOT using steroids is the most effective. Usually dogs will outgrow the Circumscripta, but in the Cutis, blood work will need to be done to check cortisol and renal function
Other common autoimmune disorders in dogs include:
– Rheumatoid Arthritis
– Thrombocytopenic Purpura
– Diabetes Mellitus
– Chronic Active Hepatitis
– Myasthenia Gravis
– Connective Tissue Disease
– Graves’ Disease
Treatment of Immune Disorders
The standard treatment of autoimmune diseases is with immune suppressing drugs. This would include steroids (such as prednisone and dexamethasone) and cytoxen. The idea is to stop the over active immune system. However, the steroid drugs have many harsh side effects, and need to be monitored closely. Additionally steroidal drugs can aggravate other disorders, such as yeast, calcinosis circumscripta, thyroid, diabetes and more. Make sure you have the CORRECT diagnosis and always make sure you understand the side effects of immune suppression drugs completely!
For under active immune systems, which can arise after an illness, vaccinations or stress, there are many immune supportive nutrients that can be given to our dog.
Vitamin C, E and A, along with the mineral selenium are all antioxidants. The idea is that these antioxidants will destroy the free radicals that form in the bloodstream that multiply during times of lowered immunity. The B-complex vitamins are good for stress and helping with nerve and brain function. The good bacteria, such as acidophilus and bifidus, are depleted during times of illness and drug use and are necessary for good digestion and the production of vitamin K. Lastly, Omega 3 fatty acids are natural anti-inflammatory agents and help regulate and promote good immunity.
For both autoimmune and suppressed immune system issues, I suggest the Berte’s Immune Blend as it contains the needed antioxidants and probiotics and EPA Fish Oil capsules to provide the needed omega-3 fatty acids which help support and regulate the immune system.
Two good immune supporting herbal tinctures include the mushroom extract formula MycoTriplex from Animals’ Apawthecary and Super Immune from Terra Firm Botanicals. Both of these provide good support to the immune system and help dogs dealing with cancer or an autoimmune illness.
As I have noted in other articles, a fresh food diet provides the nutrition dogs need. A fresh food diet is even more important when your dog is dealing with a compromised immune system – whether it is an autoimmune or suppressed immune system issue! The addition of fresh foods helps the dog more readily assimilate nutrients which help build a healthy immune system. Dry dog foods are harder to digest and due to the processing, are more prone to allowing the body to develop antigens against the cooked, and often preserved, ingredients.
Until more research and treatments are discovered for immune system related diseases and illnesses, the best method to keep your dog healthy is prevention. This would include a fresh food diet, avoiding unnecessary chemical use in the home and yard, minimal vaccinations and avoiding giving antibiotics and steroids unless absolutely needed. Other important factors include routine physical exercise and using common sense to keep your dogs stress levels low. Dogs that are being shown or working need the best nutrition available, along with routine rests and playtime. Don’t forget, that while those wins and ribbons may mean a lot to you, your dog values your company and time to relax at home. Keep the dogs healthy first, so that they can perform to their very best, with a healthy immune system.
We wish you and your family a
Happy 4th of July!!
As we are reaching the peak of the summer, keep your dogs cool and hydrated and
Please keep your dogs safe from the fireworks!