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The canine immune system is as complex (and important) as ours, working in a number of different ways to defend against – or destroy – bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, toxins and free radicals. Just like us, cats and dogs are at risk from colds and other illnesses when their immune systems are not in optimal condition.
The challenge is that this is difficult to spot (animals instinctively hide any sign of discomfort or illness to avoid appearing weak) but some symptoms to look out for include a loss of appetite, a change in their general behaviour and evidence of low energy levels. If you are at all concerned, speak to your vet as soon as possible.
The first line of defence – the innate immune system – is made up of physical barriers, including the skin, stomach, white blood cells and chemicals in the saliva. The adaptive immune system, which keeps developing throughout your dog's life, learns to protect your dog against specific diseases, viruses or bacteria by developing a memory of what it encounters, so it can respond quicker and more effectively if it encounters the same bacteria or virus again.
When your pet's immune system is not functioning at full capacity, the body is less efficient at defending itself, so it’s a good idea to do everything we can to support it. The good news is that simple things can make a huge difference, including regular exercise, reducing stress (to which our dogs are highly susceptible) and taking good care with their diet.
The answer is never to keep your pet locked up at home, but to make the changes to their everyday life that will strengthen their immune system and ensure they can fight off any threats.
To support your dog's immune system, make sure it has all the vitamins and minerals it needs, as well as enough water.
Throughout their life, ensuring your dog receives all the vitamins and minerals they need is hugely important for their immune system. Particularly as they get older, our dogs lose the ability to absorb and utilise certain nutrients as well as they used to, so a multivitamin can prove valuable. In particular, ensure they're getting enough antioxidants (which work to combat free radicals, which if left unchecked are harmful for our dogs' cells).
Some of the most well-known immune nutrients include vitamins A, B6, C and E, as well as zinc and selenium, and can be topped up using a multivitamin or by consciously incorporating more antioxidant-rich food sources, particularly fruit and vegetables (obviously keeping an eye on portion size and avoiding the toxic ones, primarily grapes, raisins, avocados, onion, garlic, wild mushrooms, rhubarb and unripe tomatoes).
An important mention should also go to omega 3, which is beneficial for reducing inflammation in the body (which plays a role in a number of diseases and health conditions). It's an important ally for your dog or cat's immune system.
In addition, make sure your dog always has fresh water, which helps to flush out toxins and harmful substances from your dog's body. Although their need varies with age, breed and activity level, as well as with climate, in general dogs require 12 ounces of water per 10 pounds of body weight per day.
The gastrointestinal system makes up around 70% of the canine immune system, so it's vital that we help to keep the gut healthy with plenty of 'friendly' bacteria (that can outcompete 'bad' bacteria and maintain balance in the gut.) Stress, antibiotics, increasing age and stomach upsets can all deplete the body's friendly bacteria, so almost all pets will benefit from the support of a probiotic.
Our dogs are hugely susceptible to stress, whether it's a change of routine, loud noises, new people or an unpleasant interaction with another animal. Just as stress negatively impacts our immune system, it does the same for our dog; it's important to keep life as calm as possible for our four-legged friends.
Just as would be recommended for children, ensure your pet enjoys plenty of exercise and time outdoors, with a regular schedule of mealtimes, naps and opportunities for play. You can also give your pet a massage, which can help to boost their feel-good hormones (endorphins) and increase the number and function of lymphocyte cells (a type of white blood cell in the vertebrate immune system and the main type of cell found in lymph.)
Healthspan pet supplements are not intended to replace a well-balanced diet for your pet.