What is the Immune System?
Just like the human immune system, the animal immune system is an amazingly intricate and complex system that keeps animals healthy and protects them against all sorts of invaders including viruses, bacteria, microbes, parasites and toxins. The subject of ‘immunity’ and the ‘immune system’ is one that regularly crops up in conversation, in the newspaper and in magazines – not to mention the vast number of adverts promoting products aimed at working with this system.
If the immune system is weakened, every body system in the animal body is at risk. In order to understand the true importance of the immune system, we firstly need to understand a little bit about how the immune system works.
How does the animal Immune System Work?
The animal immune system has many different components both inside and outside the animal body. If we start from the outside we will see that an animal’s body has many different barriers that form part of his or her immune system.
While an animal’s skin is obviously a physical barrier to many germs and toxins, it also contains special immune cells that act as warning bells to alert the immune system to any foreign material, while also regulating the immune response to this material – this is evident in the skin of an animal reacting to fleas or certain plants.
The skin also secretes antibacterial substances that hinder the growth of excess bacteria on the skin. An animal’s eyes, nose and mouth are all possible ports of entry for invading germs but an animal’s tears, nasal secretions and saliva all contain enzymes or cells of the immune system to keep the invaders at bay.
The mucous membrane linings of the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and genitourinary tracts also provide the one of the first lines of defense against invasion by microbes or parasites. Internal defense mechanisms for an animal include the Lymphatic system, Thymus gland, bone marrow, spleen, white blood cells and antibodies.
What Causes Immune System Problems?
The immune system is amazingly resilient and powerful system, protecting an animal daily from a wealth of viruses, bacteria, foreign cells and an animal’s own body cells that have "gone bad" such as cancer cells. However, like with most amazing systems, sometimes things go wrong.
Many animals suffer from allergies that are caused by a hypersensitivity reaction of the immune system to certain allergens in the environment. When these antigens enter the body system, the immune system tends to over react and antibodies quickly cause the release of histamine which results in an allergic reaction.
These reactions differ in severity and may include itchiness, lesions, blocked sinus, Asthma, Eczema and Contact dermatitis. When cells of the immune system are over-produced, they become out of control and the result is cancer or auto immune diseases, for example in humans when the body over produces white blood cells, the result is leukemia.
Antibiotics and the Immune System
Antibiotics are created for the purpose of treating bacterial infections when an animal’s immune system cannot mount an adequate response. So does it not stand to reason that if an animal’s immune system were strong enough it would not need the antibiotics? Antibiotics are specific chemicals aimed at killing off the targeted bacteria.
They are not effective against viruses and should not be given to a pet for a viral infection. Unfortunately antibiotics have been excessively and improperly used -The more you give your animals antibiotics, the more you depress their immune systems - and the more depressed their immune systems are, the more likely they are to get another infection and if they get another infection they are given another antibiotic and so the vicious cycle continues!
Help for Immune System
Natural herbal remedies
Herbs have been used to treat animals effectively for thousands of years – long before anyone knew anything about viruses, bacteria, enzymes and chemical structures. What they did know was that certain herbs helped for specific conditions or were able to strengthen and protect livestock from illness.
While there is no doubt that modern medicine has made huge strides and advances in health care, it is only recently that scientists have stopped their singular search for chemicals that kill bacteria and viruses and are starting to realize that boosting the immune system can allow the animal body to naturally fight off infectious agents - without the drawbacks of antibiotic therapy.
Many herbs have proven results with respect to the immune system. Taraxacum officinalis (Dandelion) is a rich source of vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin A, D, C, various B Vitamins, iron, lecithin, silicon, potassium, magnesium, zinc and manganese. Echinacea purpurea is well known for its excellent benefits for immune functioning and for its antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial properties.
Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) and Silybum marianum (Milk Thistle) are also beneficial, with Milk Thistle regarded as one of the most important herbal liver tonics and restoratives with the medical use of Milk Thistle traced back more than 2000 years!
Scientific analysis of Milk Thistle shows that it contains a flavonoid complex called silymarin, which is a powerful anti-oxidant - largely responsible for the medical benefits of this herb. These herbs work as a tonic for the immune system and are often recommended to prevent and assist recovery from illness or infection.
More Information on Immune System
Tips on how to help keep your pet’s immune system healthy
There is a lot that can be done naturally to help boost your pet’s immune system. A strong, healthy immune system is the best ‘armor’ you can give your animal. Here are some of the lifestyle factors that you can employ with your pet’s to keep their immune systems in peak condition and able to ward off recurrent infections:
- Make sure that your pet gets un-interrupted sleep – remember the saying: "Let sleeping dogs lie?" Sleep is one of the most important factors in maintaining a strong and healthy immune system!
- Ensure that your pet has a wholesome, nutritious diet rich in fresh veg (preferably organic high quality pet food), whole-grains for fiber, and naturally reared proteins.
- Exercise and keeping active is not only good for your pet’s body and mind but also helps to optimize immune functioning. In addition regular moderate exercise in the fresh air and sunshine will help to relax your pet and encourage healthy sleep.
- Help your pet to maintain a healthy weight. Being too thin or overweight can both depress the immune system
- Stress is also bad for the immune system. While small amounts of stress are natural for animals, prolonged stress depresses the immune system. If your pet is showing signs of stress or anxiety it is important to treat it as both anxiety and depression can also compromise the immune system.
- Play – the chemicals produced in an animal brain when they are at play are similar to the ‘feel good’ chemicals we experience when we laugh - so happy minds can make happy, healthy cells!
- Keep your pets away from cigarette and tobacco smoke (as you would with children). The chemicals contained in even second hand smoke all depress the immune system and have a negative impact on its functioning
- Reduce exposure to germs. Keep your pet’s toys and eating bowls clean. Always give your pet fresh water. While walking your pet, try to limit their contact with other animal waste. Although it is virtually impossible, try as hard as you can to limit your pet’s contact with strays, as they may be carriers of germs and disease.
- Avoid the wicked antibiotic cycle. While antibiotics may be necessary in some cases, they are generally over-prescribed by vets. Try exploring natural health options as there are many herbs with a long history of use that are well known to strengthen different parts of the immune system.