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Key nutrients in a pet's diet may boost immune system effectiveness

In a recent blog on, Jennifer Coates, DVM, shares her knowledge in the field of immunonutrition, which deals with supplementing a pet’s diet with certain nutrients’ to boost the immune system’s effectiveness.

The veterinarian says that the gastrointestinal tract is home to more than 65 percent of the body’s immune cells, which means optimal nutrition and a well-functioning immune system are important. According to a 2011 article published in Topics in Companion Animal Medicine: “Lowered immune status because of life stage or naturally occurring stress is characterized by reduced capacity to process and present foreign antigens to immune cells, resulting in a less-efficient or altered immune response that leads to increased susceptibility to infections and an increase in autoimmunity and cancers. Beyond providing essential nutrients, diet can actively influence the immune system…”

Diet interacts with the immune system at multiple levels, says Dr. Coates. Basic nutrients are provided; then, higher levels of key nutrients like protein, vitamins and minerals are provided; followed by more focused modulation of the immune system. So, it is important that pet owners ensure their dog or cat’s diet provides this “higher levels of key nutrients.”

Dr. Coates says one way to ensure these nutrients are provided by the petfood is to look for a food where ingredients like flax seed, soybeans, chicken, salmon and eggs are listed toward the top of the ingredient list. These ingredients are often high in arginine, an amino acid linked to increased T-cell immune function, which directs and regulates the body’s immune responses.

Certain fatty acids, such as the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentanoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, are also important ingredients in petfood. These omega-3 fatty acids compete with arachadonic acid, a “pro-inflammatory” fatty acid, thus helping to reduce inflammation in the body. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in certain fish oils and flax seeds. Dr. Coates cautions, however, that dogs, and to a greater extent, cats, have trouble metabolizing omega-3 fatty acids from flax.

Finally, she says vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins A, C and E, selenium and zinc, are antioxidants that, when included in petfood, can protect the body against damage from free radicals, a natural end-product of metabolism. These important vitamins and minerals can be found in petfood and should be listed in the ingredients list as supplements in the form of fruits, vegetables and other natural ingredients.

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