by Pat Rock

The Immune System

The immune system is essential to life just as a powerful military is essential to a country’s defense. And even though the mission of the military is absolutely necessary, developing and training these forces results in some injuries and deaths during training, and deaths due to “friendly fire” during war. Just as soldiers must be physically and mentally developed into warriors, the cellular soldiers of the immune system must be trained and matured into well-orchestrated, cooperating fighting units that communicate constantly with one another to achieve their goals—eliminating threats; in the case of the immune system any cell or molecule that is not recognized as “self.”

No creature with an immune system is born knowing “self” from “non-self.” The first weeks and months of life are like K-12 through PhD for the immune system cells.


The physical act of birth is quite a bit of shock to any animal’s system, but as the new animal bursts onto the scene it is bombarded with microbes which instantly take up residence on skin and mucus membranes (and don’t forget, the gastrointestinal tract is lined with mucous membranes, and houses 70% of the immune system). Current research is demonstrating that which microorganisms colonize the body affects not only the diseases we are prone to, but even mood, anxiety, obesity, and risk of development of autoimmune disorders. Diet profoundly affects the microorganisms. Scientists are finding that manipulating the diet can alter the risk of a wide array of disorders, many of which have a genetic component. DOG BREEDERS WAKE UP AND TAKE NOTICE!


Some breeds are more prone to autoimmune disorders than others. Fact: Autoimmune disease has increased exponentially in humans and dogs over the last several decades.


If dog breeders had purposefully tried to breed dogs that are susceptible to autoimmune disease they are unlikely to have achieved the level of autoimmune disease in canine population seen today, and certainly not across as many breeds as we are seeing these disorders.


Third world countries don’t see a fraction of the autoimmune disorders as in the developed nations.


In developed countries children raised on farms (think dirt, animal waste, pollen) have fewer allergies than city kids.


Latest research reverses the previous thinking about food allergies; early exposure is protective (while the immature gut cells are being instructed about what should be reacted to as foreign). What do these facts tell us? They tell us that environmental factors are affecting the immune system. If 70% of the immune system cells reside lining the gut, what is the most important environmental exposure those cells are influenced by?

The trillions of microbes that live in the gut:

(Did you know that a body has 10 times as many microscopic organisms in and on it than the total number of cells of that individual?) And what determines the types of microbes that make up that inner community? The diet.

Exposure to antibiotics which wipe out the good bacteria along with the bad in conjunction with a diet that does not favor the types and ratios of beneficial microbes is a perfect set-up for the type of inflammation that leads to development of autoimmune disorders. Too high a level of carbohydrates in the food leads to insulin resistance which leads to more inflammation which is another set-up for the immune system to act inappropriately.

Being a successful breeder of long-lived healthy dogs means being a life-long student. Doing your best for your breed means being an educator; being available as an advisor for purchasers of your puppies sold as pets as well as the next generation of breeders.

There are many disorders for which certain genotypes are AT RISK. That doesn’t mean having a certain gene or genes will automatically result in the disorder. We are finding that out in human medicine; what isn’t yet clear is what we can do to outrun our genotype. Job #1 seems to be to get rid of inflammation.

The path to lifelong health appears to be through a healthy gut which in turn hinges on harboring the right kinds of microbes. Rather than puzzling over how this or that autoimmune disorder crops up (and in our breed they occur, but randomly and no one particular one) we need to make sure our pups get the right start, that we only use antibiotics as a last resort, and we educate ourselves. Below are several books that will get you started.

Great Resources:

The Royal Treatment Barbara Royal DVM (Simon & Shuster) Excellent overview of holistic health care.

Brain Power Dr. David Perlmutter (Little,Brown) Oriented to human medicine, but outstanding explanations of how gut microbes interact with the immune system and how diet can influence development of autoimmune conditions.

Canine Nutrigenomics Dr. Jean Dodds (Dogwise) Practical advice for feeding dogs for optimum health.