Itchiness can be caused by numerous elements, but one thing is for sure, if your Westie’s immune system is low you’re leaving your bestie prone to attack.
Allergy/itching is one of the most prevalent problems seen by vets and My Pet Nutritionist (MPN) to date. It has almost become my life’s work to understand how and why this happens, as I see clients everyday with the same issues. Natural, fresh food with supplementation and certain lifestyle choices are essential in resolving this issue but we need to understand the complex immune response to deal with the problem effectively. Bear with me.
In short, allergies are due to an overactive and underachieving immune system as well as possible genetic and nutritional snips and deficiencies.
Intolerances are not essentially sparked by an immune response; however, it is related to the digestion and the immune system.
Antigens/allergens can come in different forms. They may be food related (such as chicken, beef or corn), environmental (such as pollen, dust or grass) or an immune response sparked by contact from pesky critters (such as fleas and mites).
I always say, whilst we want to learn of the triggers and try and reduce/remove exposure to whatever is making your dog itchy, ultimately we need to look at the immune system and put this back into balance, so intolerances can be rectified and the allergic responses can become lessened by a stronger and balanced immune system.
Understanding what might be happening
The immune system is so finely and there’s so much we don’t know and some of the following has thin scientific research. In more than basic terms the immune system is split into 2 phases, Th1 and Th2 (actually there is a more newly discovered TH3 and TH17 but let’s not complicate things). Both parts should work in harmony and balance.
Th1 and Th2 cells are maintained in a carefully regulated balance. If a bacterium enters the body, it activates Th2 cells that dominate the network to begin a cascade of immune events leading to an antibody response that clears the infection. If a virus enters cells in the body, it activates Th1 cells which dominate and instruct the killer cell response to clear infected cells. Once the infection is cleared up, suppressor cells are activated to shut down the dominate response and bring the network back into what we call a resting state. If the suppressor cells do not act to bring the network back to a resting state, a pathological Th1-or Th2 dominated immune system results.
A Th1 dominated immune system is characteristic of food intolerances and autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes where the immune system is attacking normal tissues.
A Th2-dominated immune system is characteristic of allergies and cancer and so forth. The incessant itching arises from an excessive and dominant reaction in the immune system. In Th2 allergic reactions (IGE), histamine is the compound released.
Allergies are for a lifetime although the immune response can be strengthened and become less severe. My example of this is a personal one. I used to experience life threatening anaphylactic shock to many different nuts. Whilst I don’t claim to resolve this for other people, I can now eat nuts without a life-threatening reaction. I know when I have had a peanut and while they won’t be a selected part of my diet, however you get the premise of my story. Intolerances can change and resolve in time and are a mucosal response in the gut. They aren’t life threatening and actually far more common with regards to food reactions. Food allergy only covers around 10% of allergies in dogs. There are several factors that drive certain parts of the immune system, causing over-reactivity and dominance as explained above.
Factors to be considered are:
Genetics; it’s like a lottery and no matter what kennel club certifications you may have, there are no guarantees. Breeding has a lot to do with it and can dominate how well they will be in life. Certain breeds are always more at risk and Westies are one of them.
We are now aware of a skin genetic mutation in white coated dogs such as Westies, that often leads to a diagnosis of Atopic Dermatitis. This is called Filaggrin mutation, where this protein found in the upper epidermis of the skin, is not effectively made. This protein is responsible for the tight junctures of skin cells, giving skin it’s strong integrity. This is incredibly important as the skin creates an immune and mechanical barrier. The skin with such a mutation, is therefore less integral and leads to a ‘leaky skin’. Looking at oils to put onto the skin and coat can be very helpful.
Foetal development and birth; how healthy was your dog’s mother, what was she fed and how many litters has she previously had, all come into play. Certain breeds don’t experience the healthy birthing through the canal such as some French Bull dogs. C-section is proven to under develop the much needed microbiota in your pet’s gut and can pre determine how balanced immunity will be. During pregnancy the mother is TH2 dominant which means, so is your pup when born, this is cleverly put back into balance during whelping and weaning.
Breast feeding/whelping and weaning; feeding from mother and getting the first colostrum and being fed like this for a good 5-6 weeks is so important for immunity and reactions. Many people arrive home with their new pet as early as 5 weeks’ old, which is way too young. This might not allow for puppy or kitten to modulate immunity and come out of TH2 dominance and balance nicely.
Environmental challenges in the early months; Initial vaccinations are important, but timing is essential in allowing the immune system to respond accordingly. Over vaccination is one of the main reasons I start to see dogs as young as 6 months old. Also being exposed to different proteins and a healthy diet helps build a positive immunity and reaction to foods in future months. The first few months determine a lot with regards to intolerances and allergies.
How our pet interfaces with the world, very much dictates whether immune dysfunction comes into play from the above points. These causative factors are environmental, and the below considerations need to be looked at in its entirety.
Causative factors of itching to be considered:
Physiological and emotional stress; we know stress triggers inflammation and a TH2 dominance, those with allergies are naturally be more TH2 dominant. Helping to support stress is key in this issue. We know that cortisol can sparks histamine production.
Intestinal permeability; allowing for the escape of undigested proteins and pathogens through the gut wall and directly into the bloodstream, evoking prolonged inflammatory immune responses. Stress, diet, poor microbiota and environmental toxins can all destroy the ‘one cell epithelial wall’ and mucosa that cause intestinal permeability. Food intolerances are very much related to ‘leaky gut syndrome’.
Altered gut microflora; c-section, early weening, stress, diet, hormones and so on can affect gut bacteria and immunity. Supporting good bacteria in the gut is essential for the support of intolerances and allergies, with extensive research showing diverse microbiota helps modulate inflammatory reactions. At MPN, we recommend soil bacteria in supplement form.
Hormonal imbalances: cortisol, oestrogen, thyroid hormones are actively associated with histamine behaviour and imbalance of immunity TH2 dominance. We de-sex most of our dogs and wonder why they have so many issues. Looking at a greater picture can help resolve itching.
Diet: poor or an inappropriate diet can trigger TH1 or TH2 dominance and so will make reactivity worse. Some foods such as wheat, grains, soy, gluten and corn are known foods to elicit reactions, but it can get really complicated. Dry food is not something that I recommend due to a high starch content and often inappropriate ingredients, cooked to extreme temperatures. Research shows us that sugar raises the cytokine inflammatory cascade and a rise in cortisol and damage to gut microbiota (good gut bacteria). Changing to fresh food can be quite transformative. Trying to select novel proteins that your dog has never been exposed to is helpful for 4-6 weeks whilst one heals the gut and restores with bacteria.
Nutritional deficiency: there are some nutritional deficiencies that are worth considering in itchy dogs. I always check Iodine, Vitamin D and Zinc. This isn’t an exhaustive list but a good start. You can ask you vet nicely to see if they will test for you.
Genetics: certain genetic polymorphisms affect immune TH1/TH2 dominance, DAO/MAO polymorphisms mean genetically your pet is less able to metabolise/breakdown histamines in the body.
Heavy metal toxicity: I don’t need to tell you how this toxicity infiltrates and permeates every function in the body, affecting immunity. If you give monthly treatments, this will drive TH2 dominance and reactivity.
Poor detoxification pathways: the body needs to be able to excrete certain metabolites for healthy immunity including histamine. The liver is a powerhouse and needs to rid the body of all metabolites.
Vaccinations; oh my. This appears to be the number one reason why the immune imbalance is skewed in favour of TH2 (allergies). Vaccinating requires a whole other article but in short, we shouldn’t persistently poke at the immune response by over vaccinating every year. At MPN, we recommend titre testing. Ask your vet to look into Vaccicheck.
Considering several different factors and learning how to modulate the immune system allows us to deal with this naturally and successfully. Food, nutritional supplements and herbs can favourably skew and re-balance dominant T-cell pathways between TH1 and TH2. More on adaptogenic herbs, nutraceuticals and other fabulous ingredients next time!
As we see in allopathic medicine, immuno medications don’t discriminate, they switch off the ‘normal and healthy’ functioning of the immune system. Steroids, Apoquel and Cytopoint can have a detrimental effect on the long-term health of your pet. Whilst we are all about quality of life, looking at nutritional inventions first is always recommended. Drugs should be a last resort.
We cover every aspect of immune response in our consultations. Please know that regardless of intolerance or allergy, there is so much we can do with nutrition. I often hear people say, I don’t need to address the nutrition as it’s an environmental allergy. Please know nutritional status depicts our health and how well we will respond to environmental stressors.
Westies & Besties readers are eligible for a 20% discount from My Pet Nutritionist by using code WESTIE20.