Immune System Support in Pets
By Shawn Messonnier, DVM

One of the most common questions I get is this: "What do you recommend to boost my pet's immune system?" Using nutritional supplements to boost the immune system in times of illness is very important for any sick pet. While supplements can be used to support the immune system during any illness, I am most often asked to prescribe something for pets with the following problems: any infectious disease (especially feline respiratory disease, kennel cough, distemper), cancer, mange, and any condition in older pets that just "aren't acting quite right". In this article, I'll discuss some of the more commonly used immune-boosting supplements, along with recommendations on how to keep your pet's immune system acting as healthy as possible all year long.

Antioxidants are among the most commonly used supplements to help pets with a variety of medical disorders. Antioxidants are specific vitamins (such as vitamin C and vitamin E) and plant and animal compounds (bioflavonoids such as grape seed extract, quercetin, coenzyme Q-10, ginkgo biloba) that are responsible for maintaining health. Technically, they do not boost the immune system (although proanthocyanidins appear to potentiate the immune system via enhancement of T-lymphocyte activity and modulation of neutrophil and macrophage responses) but rather clean up the products of cell damage (oxidizing chemicals). Antioxidants also decrease various chemicals (histamine, interleukin, tumor necrosis factor) that cause cell damage. Because antioxidants minimize damage to cells, they are useful whenever disease is present and immune support is needed.

Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea, E. angustifolia, E. pallida) is the most commonly known immune stimulant which also functions as an antimicrobial (antiviral and antibacterial) herb. In people, echinacea is the number-one cold and flu herbal remedy. There are a number of classes of pharmacologically active chemicals in echinacea, including polysaccharides, flavonoids, caffeic acid, essential oils, alkylamides, and polyacetylenes. Currently, to prevent long term immune system problems, most doctors recommend using echinacea for a short period of time (3-4 weeks) followed by a resting period (3-4 weeks) before the herb is resumed.

Arabinogalactans are polysaccharides mainly derived from the larch tree (Larix occidentalis). Studies have shown that these compounds may enhance natural killer cells and cause a release of interferon gamma. Arabinogalactan has strong immunostimulating and anti-inflammatory properties. Arabinogalactans can be used as part of the integrative approach to cancer treatment and anytime immune stimulation is needed (viral, bacterial, or fungal diseases). The product ImmunoSupport by RX Vitamins for Pets is the only arabinogalactan product currently available.

Purine nucleotides are the final class of supplements that can be helpful for pets’ needed immune system support. These compounds are involved in virtually all cellular processes and play a major role in structural, metabolic, energetic and regulatory functions. Like arabinogalactans, they have been shown to stimulate the activity of natural killer cells.

Purine pyrimidine complexes are the active fractions found in colostrum, the first milk produced by mammals. Colostrum contains cytokines and other protein compounds that can act as biological response modifiers. Research supports its use in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis as well as other autoimmune conditions. Nucleotides also may play an important role in essential fatty acid metabolism, and may have a positive effect on the functions of the gastrointestinal tract and the liver. Nucleotides are usually given to pets in the form of colostrum or a product called Transfer Factor.

Maintaining a Healthy Immune System

While supplements can be used in times of illness, maintaining a healthy immune system is important in decreasing the incidence and severity of disease. Follow the following tips to keep your pet as healthy as possible.

1. Feed the most natural diet possible. Learn to read a pet food label and avoid foods with chemical preservatives (BHT, BHA, ethoxyquin) and animal and plant by-products that can damage a pet's immune system and do not help maintain health as much as foods with natural preservatives and no by-products. When possible, prepare and feed a homemade diet (using one of the recipes in “The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats”) to ensure that your pet is eating the healthiest food possible.

2. Minimize vaccines. Most pets do not need annual "shots". A simple blood test called a titer test can determine which vaccines your pet needs.

3. Minimize chemicals. I prefer not to use chemical flea prevention products unless absolutely needed. Monthly heartworm medication is preferred over the 6 month injectible heartworm preventive. [Heartworm medication is recommended at this time because I have not found any good, safe, proven natural preventive and believe in the conventional products to prevent what can be a fatal disease.]

4. Administer whole food vitamin and mineral supplements, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids to maintain a healthy body.

5. Administer choline supplementation to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease (cognitive disorder) in dogs and cats 10 years of age and older.

By following the ideas presented here, you will be able to confidently work with your veterinarian to help your pet maintain a healthy immune system.

About the author:
Dr. Shawn Messonnier is the author of "The Arthritis Solution for Dogs", "The Allergy Solution for Dogs", and the award-winning "The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats". For your weekly dose of holistic pet care, read Dr. Shawn's column, "The Holistic Pet", in your local paper, distributed by Knight Ridder.