Allergies are basically an “inappropriate” or “over-zealous” reaction of an animals’ (or persons) immune system. Genetics certainly play a role in pre-disposing an animal to developing allergies, but environment and nutrition will ultimately decide to what degree the allergy is expressed. One unfortunate reality of allergies is that despite all the advances in modern medicine, allergies are still a “chronic” disease – the best we can hope to do is “control” the expression of an allergy, and limit the use of drugs required to do so.
Controlling the Dog or Cat’s Immune System
The key to “controlling” allergies is to understand how and why they occur. As mentioned, allergies are an inappropriate immune reaction to a specific allergen – a reaction that that is not “pre-programmed” into the immune system by the core genetic code, but one that is “learned” or “accidentally” occurs. The study of the immune system (immunology) is a fascinating science, and one that has provided much of the information that is driving modern medical advances. One of the fascinating facts about the immune system is that it works in almost the same way in all animal species – from man to fish. It is an ancient and untouched genetic code, and is designed to “protect” an animal from disease, and to assist repair.
Causes of Immune System Malfunction in Dogs and Cats
The answer to this question is the key to solving the mystery of allergies, and unfortunately there is not one simple answer. A genetic predisposition is certainly one big factor, but genetics alone are not the answer. Modern immunology has now shown us that both nutrition, and environment, will affect the way our immune system functions. When we talk about environment, we really mean the “artificial” environment, and the exposure to manmade chemicals. They range from household chemical cleaning agents and insect sprays, to outdoor petrochemical fumes, herbicides and water additives. What about the products we deliberately use on our pets – shampoos, conditioners, worm tablets, flea and tick control, heartworm prevention, even the chemical stabilizers used in vaccines – all of these can act as potential “triggers” for allergies.
Other recognized triggers also include the huge range of chemical preservatives and colourings used in processed pet foods, some of which are now recognized as carcinogenic. It is important to remember that most of these chemical agents are “new” to the immune system (they weren’t around hundreds of millions of years ago when the immune system was evolving in fish), so it is not surprising that our bodies do react to them as “foreign”. Recent studies into immunology and parasites have also revealed some startling results in this area. Dogs and cats have been evolving on earth for some 40 Million years, and for nearly all that time, they did so without interference from man. Their bodies had developed a natural balance between intestinal and topical parasites, which was controlled by their immune system. The part of the immune system that controls parasites, are the same cells (eosinophils) that are involved in allergies.
With the advent of modern chemical worming tablets and the widespread adoption of 3 monthly worming programs, intestinal worms have become a thing of the past. To further add to this, modern “all in one” topical preparations that control topical parasites and heartworm also kill the majority of intestinal worms, but on a monthly basis. Whilst this may at first appear to be a great thing for our pets (and don’t get me wrong, these products are very useful), we have now reached a position where our pets can be completely “sterile” of all parasites.
What modern immunology has discovered however is that when the body is sterile of parasites, the part of the immune system that has evolved over millions of years to control them, the eosinophils, is now left without a job to do – and as a result, there are now large numbers of these cells available to react to “allergens”. What this means is that the effect of an allergic reaction in pets that have no parasites to control, is actually far more intense, than in a pet where these cells are actually doing the job they were designed to do. In short, dogs and cats that are “sterile” are far more prone to having serious allergic skin disease.
And what about nutrition?
How does what we eat, or what we feed our pets’, affect the immune system? Most people nowadays do accept that what we eat will affect our overall health and longevity, but what we may not realize is that it affects our health by affecting our immune system. Modern nutrition recognizes that there are 76 known macro and micro nutrients required for perfect health. Simply put, your immune system needs all 76 elements to function perfectly. What we also now understand, is that our bodies (and that of your pets’) do not exist in a “sterile” environment. The intestinal tract requires the presence of pro-biotic bacteria to assist in processing, and actually producing (eg vitamin B12), some of the 76 elements. Our pets also have their own population of good bacteria, and they are also essential for good health. It is the combination of a diet that provides all the necessary nutrients, combined with an intestinal tract full of probiotics, which allows our body to process, create and absorb the full nutritional value. It has also been demonstrated that a “sterile” gut (poor probiotic flora) can become “leaky”, and will allow absorption of foreign protein molecules that would normally be eliminated in the faecal waste – thus allowing entry of more potential allergens.
Unfortunately, for both humans and pets, the supply of good, healthy food is no longer as simple as it used to be. Just one hundred years ago, people ate good quality fresh food. Produce was grown organically, harvested and eaten fresh on a daily basis. There was little in the way of processing or preserving, and the soils that were used to grow crops, fruit, or livestock, were healthy and nutrient rich. Compare that to today, when an apple bought from the supermarket may be 9 months old before you eat it, and it has been grown entirely on artificial fertilizers and sprayed with chemicals, or the fact that the vitamin C content of a supermarket orange has fallen to 2% of what it was the day it was picked, and we see it is not so hard to understand what has gone wrong. If you add to that the processing and preservatives used to extend shelf life, and the over-abundance of sugars and salts included in processed food and drinks, we start to see an insidious pattern of modern day “malnutrition” emerging.
Let us not think that our pets have been spared this reality. For the past 40 Million years, dogs and cats ate a healthy diet of wild prey, raw, uncooked and unprocessed, supplying not only the necessary probiotic bacteria for gut health, but also the complete 76 nutrients for perfect health. On the whole, today’s processed pet foods are made from in-edible carcass remains (made into meat meal and meat by-products), cheap sources of bulk carbohydrate and vegetable matter, sugar, salt, flavours, and preservatives. Add to this a cocktail of about 25 chemically derived essential vitamins and minerals (a commercially available product which guarantees a pet food will meet AAFCO nutritional standards) – then finally, mix all this into biscuits, cook at high temperatures (often over 200’C for import into Australia) to sterilise, and then spray with liver digest and fat – this is what has replaced the natural diet of dogs and cats.
Modern pet foods are sterile (they provide no pro-biotic bacteria) and they certainly do not provide the body with all the 76 nutrients required for optimal health, no matter how much they cost, or what they say on the pack. Sure, some are better than others, but collectively, they are contributing to the same “modern day malnutrition” that is affecting western society.
So how can we treat dog and cat allergies?
Certainly I do not profess to have all the answers to treating allergies, but there are some basic guidelines that I follow in practice, that consistently lead to effective, positive results in pets that have allergies.
- To best supply the necessary probiotics and 76 elements, change your pet onto a natural, raw, balanced and unprocessed diet, using fresh meats and produce that has not been treated with chemical preservatives (avoid sulphur dioxide = preservative 220, 221, 222 etc). Choose a meat source that your pet is not likely to have had regular access to (eg kangaroo meat, or green tripe), avoid chicken and beef. Stick to a simple carbohydrate, for gluten intolerance. (eg Vets All Natural Complete Mix or our ready to serve RAW76 & Healthrolls)
- Add the following daily supplements – a dose of probiotics (eg Protexin or Vets All Natural Skin and Coat Formula), an all?natural multivitamin and mineral supplement, an Omega 3 fatty acid supplement such as FlaxnSeed oil or Fish oil (fish oil is better for cats). Eg Vets All Natural Omega Blend Oil.
- When using parasite control, try to use products that only affect the parasite you are targeting. Eg, use a product that only kills fleas if you have a flea problem, or a product that only kills heartworm larvae, and not one that also kills intestinal worms. For regular worming, consider having a faecal test done to see if worms are present at large numbers, rather than just treating every 3 months. Pets can tolerate low numbers of worms naturally.
- There are several well documented herbs that are able to “modulate” immune cell responses (i.e. dampen over-reactive T cells) – astragalus, perilla seed, resihi and shitake mushroom, and cats claw are all herbs that can assist with a “hyper-active” immune system. Eg. Vets All Natural Skin and Coat Formula 5. When an animal is in a highly reactive state, the use of high potency anti-oxidants –like vitamin E,C, green tea,pine bark extract, grape seed extract, turmeric, and goji berries can provide rapid systemic relief. Eg. Vets All Natural Skin and Coat Formula
If these changes alone are not fixing the problem, try:
- Using rain water for drinking rather than chlorinated and fluoride treated tap water.
- Make whatever adjustments to the home and backyard that is feasible – try and avoid using harsh cleaning products and chemical sprays.
- When an animals’ skin is inflamed, avoid over-use of shampoos and medicated washes, they often provide only temporary relief, and may actually be “contributing” to the ongoing cycle.
My experience, gained over the last 20 years in practice, has shown me that more than 50% of allergic pets can be maintained on a drug free regime if you follow these simple guidelines. For more information, read my article on Skin Protocol which is about targeting allergies.
Dr Bruce Syme BVSc (Hons), Founder of Vets All Natural.
Dr Bruce Syme is a practicing vet and expert in natural pet nutrition, has spoken at the Australian Veterinary Association Annual Conference, and provides regular comment on TV and Radio.
Disclaimer: The entire contents of this article are based upon the opinions of Dr. Bruce Syme, unless otherwise noted. The information is not intended as medical advice, it simply shares the knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr. Bruce and his community. Pet health care decisions should be based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified pet health care professional.
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