Every year about this time, Peña Adobe Park near Vacaville, California, fills up with thirty or forty dogs or more, most of whom outweigh the average human teenager, and all of whom have endured abandonment, abuse, or in some cases imminent execution. This is the annual Great Dane Walk sponsored by Great Dane Rescue of Northern California. It’s part fundraiser, part family reunion—and a chance to get a yearly dose of inspiration from meeting animals who once faced dire circumstances, but who are now thriving and happy with loving families to call their own.

My sweetheart Savannah is an alumna of Great Dane Rescue, so we try to make it to “The Walk” each year to join in the festivities and share ideas about holistic care and lifestyle. This year Colleen Leahy, one of the organization’s directors, asked me to bring suggestions for supporting the immune system. It seems several of our graduates have succumbed to serious illnesses in the last few months, and the inordinately short life span of these benevolent giants—typically just seven to ten years—has been on everyone’s mind. Like all guardians, members are always on the lookout for ways to keep their loved ones healthy as long as possible, and to treat all kinds of illness, from a simple urinary tract infection to cancer, with a minimum of side effects.

A healthy immune system in any animal springs from good basic health and vitality, and the foundation consists of two key elements: a safe, loving home, and an excellent diet. After that, there’s a seemingly endless list of supplements, herbs, and holistic treatments that can add important additional layers of support.

Let’s take a closer look.

A fresh, natural diet with lots of variety
Feed a fresh, home-prepared diet if you possibly can, made from a wide variety of ingredients. (See the article “Simple Strategies for Really Good Food”). If you’re unable to prepare meals yourself, choose packaged foods made only from all natural ingredients, by companies dedicated to the principles of holistic care—and be sure to vary the brand often (See the article, “Fast Food Can Be Healthy Food”). If your companion consumes processed foods made with poor quality ingredients and chemical additives, her body will become overloaded with toxins that undermine health and potentially cause serious illness. Eating wholesome, natural foods, free from artificial additives, means she’ll benefit as you do from meals bursting with vitamins, enzymes, and other valuable nutrients, along with the life energy of fresh, living food. With this sort of diet, her vitality soars—and the immune system is strong and ready to respond when the inevitable disease threat appears.

A safe and peaceful lifestyle
Recognize and minimize the stress in your friend’s life. You can’t insulate him completely from life’s ups and downs, but understand that repeated or chronic negative stress from emotional unhappiness, fear, or fatigue can lead to exhaustion of his vital bodily resources, paving the way for immune system depletion. Ongoing stressors like too much time spent alone, a volatile relationship with an animal sibling or neighbor, or emotional turmoil among human family members can lead to increased susceptibility to any disease that comes along, including cancer. The solution is simple: Shower him with love, and create a space where he feels safe, relaxed, and happy.

An environment free of toxins
Keep the external environment—in your home and in your yard—free of chemical cleaning agents, pesticides, and even cigarette smoke. While these substances pose a risk to everyone in the family, animals often have a more serious exposure than humans. Most often they live close to the ground, where cigarette smoke hangs in the air, and where their feet and noses come in contact with cleaning agents on the floor and chemicals on the lawn. Many of these substances cause direct, immediate illness. But even if you see no obvious sign of trouble, when your companion’s body absorbs these chemicals day after day, the organs responsible for eliminating them—such as the liver and kidneys—become overloaded. As a result, vitality is depleted and the body’s ability to fight disease is compromised. Move the “smoking section” outdoors, and eliminate chemical cleaning agents in favor of environmentally friendly alternatives (available at most health food stores). Switch to organic, animal-safe garden fertilizers, and if you must use pesticides or herbicides consult a holistic veterinarian for safe alternatives.

Nutritional supplements
Include a good vitamin-mineral supplement and an additional antioxidant supplement in the diet. While the fresh fruits and vegetables in your friend’s diet are essential sources of these nutrients, supplementation that includes vitamins A, B-complex, C, and E, and other antioxidants such as alpha lipoic acid, Coenzyme Q10, and bioflavonoids provide valuable insurance that she’ll get the support she needs. Choose supplements made from whole foods (fruits and vegetables, green foods, green tea extract, and grape seed extract are just a few examples of whole food sources) if possible.

Echinacea is one of the best known and most widely used immune supportive herbs in this country. It’s wonderful for short term use—just ten days to two weeks—at the onset of an acute illness or infection. Ginseng root can be given for two to three weeks at a time, and has been used to increase vitality as well as stimulate immune function. For more long-term immune support rely on a tonic herb, such as astragalus.

Medicinal mushrooms
Medicinal mushrooms have been widely used for millennia in Japan and China for long-term immune support, during times of physical or emotional stress, or when disease has been identified. Shiitake, Reishi, Maitake, and Cordyceps are among the best known and most widely used varieties. More recently Agaricus blazei has gained attention, as clinical studies demonstrate its exceptional ability to stimulate production of “natural killer cells” and to otherwise support immune function. Agaricus and other mushrooms can be included in the diet of a healthy animal for ongoing immune support, or be part of the treatment program for cancer and many infectious diseases. While medicinal mushrooms are suitable for long-term use, it’s best to give your companion a break from the supplement for one week out of every four to six weeks, to ensure maximum benefit.

A minimum of immuno-suppressive treatments
Steroids and antibiotics are among the many conventional medicines that can save a life in a critical situation. But some pharmaceuticals can compromise immune function. If your animal friend is ill, work with your veterinarian to decide when it’s safe to opt for natural remedies like herbs and homeopathy that will not suppress the immune system.
Also, there is growing evidence that we may be over-vaccinating our animals (and ourselves), and some veterinarians suspect that the practice may “confuse” or even suppress the immune system. Talk to your veterinarian about a “risk-benefit” approach so that your dog or cat is vaccinated only against those illnesses that pose a realistic threat in your geographical area, and in the context of your lifestyle.

Acupuncture, massage, and other body work
Acupuncture and massage have been clinically proven to enhance immune function. Hospitalized human patients have been shown to heal faster when given Therapeutic Touch. Other types of bodywork, such as Therapeutic Touch, TTouch, and Reiki are also valued aids to health and healing. Ask your holistic vet to refer you to practitioners, or find one. You can easily learn to do acupressure (a variation of acupuncture that uses pressure applied with the fingers instead of needles), massage, Therapeutic Touch, TTouch, and Reiki (See “A Warm Touch on a Cold Winter’s Eve”). Check online or at your local bookstore for resources. There’s a great added benefit when you perform bodywork for your animal yourself. A treatment session can be an opportunity to deepen your relationship in very special, unexpected ways. And the love and trust the two of you share will enhance the healing benefits—for both of you.

Hopefully all our non-human family members will live well beyond that ominous life span of the giant breed dogs. After all, those numbers don’t mean a thing when they’re lumbering across a grassy field, or bestowing gentle kisses on us as we open our eyes in the morning. And besides, we’re learning more very day about how a holistic approach to care and lifestyle can help maintain a strong immune system and excellent vitality. But whether they’re with us for fifteen years, or twenty, or two, with our good sense, good food, lots of TLC, and a few natural supplements, we can make those years happy, healthy, and vibrant ones.

A note about Great Dane Rescue….
Without a doubt, there are dogs of every size, shape, color, and ancestry waiting desperately in shelters across the country for loving homes. And of course, your next true love may appear in a body more unique and beautiful than anything your imagination or expectations can conjure. It may well be that the best way to find the newest member of the family is to visit the local shelter without any predisposition regarding breed.

But for those who wish to adopt a dog with a particular body type or temperament, a breed rescue organization can provide an excellent opportunity to do so without supporting the breeding industry. Rescue organizations exist for virtually every popular breed, and can be found easily with an online search. Great Dane Rescue of Northern California is just one of those organizations, made up of volunteers who work tirelessly to place these sweet, homeless giants in permanent homes. Like so many others who do rescue work, they provide invaluable care for these dogs and for the people who love them.

Still, it’s good to remember that diversity is a beautiful thing. Toward that end, we hold a special place in our hearts for the loving soul with no breed to call his own, and more importantly no family of his own, waiting hopefully at the shelter down the street. When our minds are as open as our hearts, we sometimes find love in the most unexpected faces.