What Causes Inflammation In Dogs—And Can Their Food Help?
When you think of the most pressing health issues facing your dog, the word “inflammation” may not immediately spring to mind. But it’s a lurking menace that’s linked to an array of serious ailments.
Inflammation is a common physical response, usually to injury or illnesses. It’s the body’s way of protecting and healing itself by dilating blood vessels and sending white blood cells to the affected area. It’s a crucial immune response that helps keep us and our dogs alive—but it can sometimes get out of control.
There are several things you can do to ease your dog’s pain, but let’s first make sure we understand exactly what types of inflammation there are, and their causes.
Just as humans do, dogs experience inflammation in a variety of ways. The most common types are inflammation of the joints, of the skin, and of internal tissues.
Best known as arthritis, inflammation of the joints is one unfortunate condition dogs and humans share, and commonly causes chronic pain in both species. The most common form of arthritis in dogs is canine osteoarthritis and it occurs when the smooth cartilage that cushions the bones of the joint wears away, causing bone-on-bone friction. The end result is pain, and limited mobility—dogs may have difficulty moving or standing up, general stiffness, or a negative reaction when being handled or touched. Arthritic dogs may also have noticeable swelling, and pain caused by arthritis may cause them to habitually lick certain joints as they seek relief (read more about guarding against arthritis here).
Inflammation can also extend to the skin, in the form of itchy skin rashes, and bald spots. Symptoms can include scratching, licking, excessive grooming, and secondary skin infections—behaviors your dog may exhibit in pursuit of pain relief—as well as fur loss, scabs and skin redness.
Dogs can also experience inflammation in their fatty tissues, which is clinically known as steatitis. This is tougher to spot, but is most commonly exhibited as lumps that appear under the skin. If untreated, it can lead to a decreased appetite, lethargy, fever, and physical pain when touched. Steatitis can occur on its own or alongside more serious health conditions like cancer, blood diseases, immune-related diseases, and injury.
The most hidden form of inflammation in dogs is in the small intestines—a condition called enteritis which is caused by infection, parasites, or allergies. Its symptoms are a lot more visible though, and include diarrhea or other abnormal stool, vomiting, depression, fever, abdominal pain, and decreased appetite.
Acute vs chronic inflammation
When it comes to defining specific types of inflammation it’s also important to distinguish between acute and chronic inflammation.
Acute inflammation occurs as a near-immediate response to a specific injury. For instance, when you break a bone, there’s swelling, redness, and heat as your body tries to prevent infection and jumpstart the healing process with hormones and nutrients, to help repair damaged tissues.
Chronic inflammation is the more potentially insidious form. It’s a longer-term, low-level reaction that may affect the entire body if untreated, and can ultimately even damage DNA. Although chronic inflammation is not as well understood, it results in microscopic damage to the body’s cells and oxidative stress, which is linked to premature aging and can increase the risk for illnesses like heart disease and cancer.
What can I do about it?
While there’s little you can do to prevent your pup suffering from acute inflammation, aside from generally keeping them safe from injury and harm, there are some reported links between chronic inflammation and malnutrition that suggest issues can be sparked by certain dietary problems and imbalances.
The amount, and proportion of essential fatty acids in your dog’s food can play a role in influencing inflammation. Essential, healthy fats are important in regulating inflammation and maintaining your dog’s overall good health. Dogs require Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids in their diet as they cannot produce them on their own. It’s essential to balance these fats as they each have a different role in your dog’s body when it comes to inflammation. Omega-3s reduce the inflammatory response, Omega-6 fats promote it. The latter CAN be a good thing, as in the case of raising your dog’s immune response, but, as we know, too much inflammation is a health disaster.
Since Omega 3 fatty acids are typically less abundant in the average canine diet (many commercial pet foods contain more Omega-6s than Omega-3s) many dogs can benefit from Omega-3 supplementation—studies have shown that supplementing Omega-3 fatty acids correlates to lower inflammation. Omega-3 fats are mainly sourced from fish and good sources for dogs include sardines and anchovies.
Keeping your dog at a healthy weight, in general, can be helpful in lessening the chance they’ll suffer from inflammation (read more on weight management here). Fat tissue contains a higher proportion of immune cells, the ones which produce an inflammatory response, and the more fat tissue there is, the more likely inflammation is too. Maintaining an ideal weight and avoiding inflammatory foods—such as those high in sugar, trans fat, saturated fat, and calories—is one of the most accessible things you can do to keep your dog feeling good.
Lastly, it may seem obvious, but avoid feeding your dog foods to which it has allergies or sensitivities. Allergy symptoms are caused by the immune system’s reaction to the allergen, and inflammation frequently follows—especially in sensitive areas, like the GI tract and bowels.
Something to chew on…
Given the number of ways diet can have an impact on inflammation, one of the easiest ways to avoid discomfort in your dog is to make sure you really know what you’re feeding them. Tests have found unlisted and toxic ingredients in commercially produced canned foods and kibble, making it impossible for even the most diligent owners to know exactly what they’re feeding. Kibble’s high-calorie content and broad portioning recommendations make weight management tricky, too.
Fresh food is made with higher quality ingredients, and is also cooked at lower temperatures than commercially-produced foods, which is easier on dogs’ digestive systems, and packaged pre-portioned, making controlling serving sizes easier.
A healthy diet is as crucial to your dog’s health as it is to your own. Just as human nutrition problems can play a huge role in chronic disease, feeding your dog a high-quality, natural anti-inflammatory diet is an important way to boost your canine companion’s overall health and wellness.
This article was vetted by a vet.
Reviewed by Alex Schechter, DVM, Founding Veterinarian at Pure Paws Veterinary Care.