How often do we see Rottweilers exhibiting dry flaking skin, thinning coats, running teary eyes, excessive foot licking, hot spots, chronic
diarrhoea, hyperactivity, inability to gain weight or mood swings? We may try different dry dog foods, visits to the vet for antibiotics or cortisone drugs or special shampoos. However, usually these symptoms reappear, only to start the treatment cycle of drugs and bathing all over again.
The most common diagnoses for these symptoms are flea allergies, dermatitis, environmental allergies or lack of fatty acids in the diet. Treating skin disorders is the most frequent reason for trips to the veterinarian. However, all these symptoms often point to another disorder - either an under active immune system, or an overactive immune system. Let's examine both of these.
Under-Active Immune System
A suppression of the immune system can occur when the body's system is compromised by immune suppressing factors. These can include over vaccination, vaccinating during a bitch's heat cycle or pregnancy, antibiotics, use of steroid drugs, protein malnutrition, insufficient calories, vitamin or mineral insufficiencies, hormonal fluctuations, virus and disease and other specific drugs. Other illness and systemic diseases can also lower the immune system, such as diabetes, renal failure, systemic lupus
erythematosus and neoplasia.
A suppressed immune system leaves the dog with poor ability to fight bacteria and virus, prone to infections and poor health, and leaves a dog susceptible to cancer and poor ability to fight insults of the environment, such as pesticides, herbicides and other pollutants. The dog lacks the ability to develop normal immunity to everyday exposure to routine infections that other dogs can fend off naturally.
Over-active Immune System
This condition is called autoimmune disease. The body literally overreacts to normal agents found in the body, and develops antigens to destroy them. The immune system goes into 'overdrive,' and not only tries to destroy the cells it may see as bacteria, but can start to destroy normal red blood cells. The body will begin to see these cells as 'foreign,' and react by developing skin allergies, hot spots, teary eyes and other common symptoms of allergic response. However, the autoimmune response can go further, creating other autoimmune disorders.
These diseases can be either acquired or congenital. Information from Cornell University indicates that the acquired immunodeficiencies are more common that the congenital.
Acquired immunodeficiencies can be triggered by:
- Puppies not receiving colostrum during the first 48 hours of life
- Parvo or distemper infection
- Drug reactions
- Over Vaccinations
- Modified live vaccination response
- Poor diet or malnutrition
- Chemicals in the environment
Some of the drugs implicated in triggering autoimmune responses include anticonvulsants, potentiated sulfonamides and some heart worm preventatives. The new anti-inflammatory drugs for dogs have been suspected in some reactions as well. The other diseases listed as well as poor nutrition and vaccinations can also trigger the immune system to over react, by reacting to the ingested material, injected antibodies or the struggle in fighting off bacteria and virus.
Other drugs, such as cortisone, prednisone and other steroids work to suppress the immune system (therefore reducing allergic reactions) but in this further suppression, can create more problems. As soon as these drugs are removed, the symptoms usually come right back, with a further compromised immune system, leaving the dog more susceptible to further infection.
Antibiotics also suppress the immune system, and unselectively kill all bacteria, therefore destroying the friendly bacteria in the digestive system, which in turn lowers the immune system.
Chemicals that can affect the immune system include pesticides, herbicides and household cleaners. Dogs are lower to the ground, and have a greater tendency to be closer to yard chemicals, agents used in the house for pest control and chemicals used in carpets for stain and dirt resistance.
Some of the same things that trigger autoimmune disease can also lower the immune system. It can be difficult to determine whether it is an under or an over active immune system problem. A good diagnosis is needed, and a blood panel can often determine
Now, let's briefly examine some of the more common autoimmune disorders prone to Rottweilers.
The thyroid gland is essential for the production of protein. When this gland is not working properly, it is first seen in poor coats, thin hair and brittle hair. Other symptoms can be obesity, low energy, difficulty staying warm enough, irregular estrus cycle, poor stamina, and poor resistance to infections. A blood panel can be drawn to test for this disease, but the timing and type of test are important considerations. Also, yearly tests need to be continued to monitor the thyroid. There are some speculations that low thyroid can be caused by poor diet and a selenium deficiency.
The disease shows its symptom through loss of pigment. It will generally appear as white hair growth in a 'ticking' pattern, anywhere on the body. The pigment of the mouth can mottle or turn pink, and toenails and areas around the eyes can turn white. It is an autoimmune response, in that the body suddenly starts destroying the melanocytes, or the cells that produce pigment. It can be associated with diabetes, Addison's Disease and hypothyroidism. Although no medical treatments are known, good nutrition and use of antioxidant drugs have seen to help stop this condition from becoming worse.
This condition is caused by an underactive adrenal gland. Sometimes this can be caused by long term use of cortisone drugs, which can cause the adrenal glands to shrink in size. Symptoms include discoloration and darkening of the skin, diarrhea, weight loss, loosing of coat hair in patches and increased thirst. The dog may seek heat, walk unsteady and have mood swings. The danger of this disease is that the symptoms can wax and wane, and so it is often misdiagnosed or treated as other conditions.
The opposite of Addison's disease, Cushing's is an overactive adrenal gland. Symptoms of this disorder include a heavy or rounded body with thin limbs, along with wasting of the muscles. Sometimes increased body hair will appear.
The anemia in hemolytic anemia is caused by the bodies over reacting to an antigen, which in turn can attach itself to the red blood cells. The body then begins to destroy is own life supporting red blood cell supply. This most often affects young adults, and females are affected more often than males. Treatment is most often cortisone type drugs, to suppress the over active immune system. However, this is turn suppresses the already compromised immune system. Sometimes this disease is so aggressive, that chemotherapy drugs such as cytoxin are used to further suppress the immune system. There is speculation that certain prescription drugs, such as heart worm medications, dog anti-inflammatory drugs, anti-seizure medications and vaccinations can often initiate this autoimmune disorder.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)
Lupus can affect the joints, red blood cells and skin. It is also called the "great imitator," as it mimics many other diseases. One symptom is loss of hair on the face, across the nose and cheeks. Treatment is similar to that of hemolyic anemia. Lupus generally affects females more than males.
The symptoms of uveitis generally are a drying and reddening of the eye, starting with a minor eye irritation. Again, the body over reacts with antigens in the eye, where the body begins to destroy the good cells. The result is inflammation of the eye and eye tissue.
This is a congenital or acquired disorder of the lymphatic system resulting in fat and protein malabsorption, with a protein-loosing enteropathy. Typical symptoms include weight loss, fluid in the abdomen and vomiting and
Diagnosis is made from an intestinal biopsy or examination of stool for elevated fecal alpha-l-antitrypsin levels (acts as a marker for protein-loosing eneteropathies. This disease is often confused with irritable bowel syndrome and colitis, although there is speculation they may be related.
This disease is currently being examined in Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers, and it is noted in their studies that Rottweilers are showing a high incidence as well. This disease has responded well to reducing long-chain fats in diet and adding medium-chain triglycerides.
Good nutritional support is indicated, as well as vitamin supplementation. There is now speculation that this disease, as well as irritable bowel disease may be triggered by food allergies, or processed dry dog food diets.
Other common autoimmune disorders in dogs include:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Thrombocytopenic Purpura
- Diabetes Mellitus
- Chronic Active Hepatitis
- Myasthenia Gravis
- Connective Tissue Disease
- Graves Disease
Speculated disorders caused by an overactive immune system include:
Treatment of Immune Disorders
The standard treatment of autoimmune diseases is with immune suppressing drugs. This would include steroids (such as prednisone and dexamethasone) and cytoxen. The idea is to stop the over active immune system. However, the steroid drugs have many harsh side effects, and need to be monitored closely. A diet that supports that immune system is needed in conjunction with these drugs.
For under-active immune systems (as in the case of after an illness, vaccination or stress) there are many immune enhancing nutrients that can be given to the dog. Jean Dodds D.V.M. recommends zinc, selenium with vitamin E, vitamin B-6
(pyridoxine) and linoleic acid. Dr. Cheryl Schwartz D.V.M. suggests vitamin C, bioflavonoid with
quercetin, vitamin A and betacarotene, B-Complex, Sea Kelp, acidophilus
and bifidus and essential fatty acids. Dr. Susan Wynn D.V.M. also suggests giving vitamin B-5 (pantothenic acid) prior to vaccination.
Vitamin C, E and A, along with the mineral selenium are all antioxidants. The idea is that they will destroy the free radicals that form in the bloodstream that multiple during times of lowered immunity. Zinc has also been noted as deficient in dogs with immune related problems.
The B complex vitamins are good for stress, and helping with nerves and brain function. The good bacteria, such as
acidophilus and bifidus are depleted during times of illness (and drug use) and are necessary for good digestion and production of vitamin K. Lastly, the essential fatty acids are some natural anti-inflammatory agents, and help regulate and promote good immunity.
There are also several herbal immune boosters, but caution must be taken, to ensure the immune problem is one of under active immune system, rather than autoimmune. It is not wise to stimulate an already over active immune system. Some good immune-boosting herbs include
Echinacea, Goldenseal, red clover, dandelion, burdock, cats claw, essiac tea, suma and
astragalus. The most effective administration for dogs is a glycerine-based tincture.
As I have noted in other articles, all the holistic veterinarians agree that a good natural diet is the best
defence and healer for dogs with the potential of compromised immune system, either autoimmune or under active. The additions of fresh foods help the dog more readily assimilate nutrients and build a healthy immune system. Dry dog foods are harder to digest, and due to the processing, are more prone for the body to develop antigens against the cooked and often preserved ingredients. Fresh food digests in about four hours, allowing more energy for the body to fight invading bacteria and virus, and create and maintain a strong immune system.
Until more research and treatments are discovered for immune problems, the best method to keep your dog healthy is prevention. This would include good nutrition, avoiding unnecessary chemical use in the home and yard, minimal vaccinations and avoiding antibiotics and steroids unless absolutely needed. Other important factors include routine physical exercise, and using common sense to keep your dogs stress levels low. Dogs that are being shown or working need the best nutrition available, along with routine rests and playtime. Don't forget, that while those wins and ribbons may mean a lot to you, your dog values your company, and time to relax at home. Keep the dogs health first, so that they can perform to their very best, with a healthy immune system.
By Lew Olson • Fall 1998 Newsletter
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