Skin: An Essential Part of Your Pet's Healthy Immune System
The skin is an incredibly important part of the mammalian immune system. It provides the basis for physical interaction with the outside world. And while many interactions with the outside world are essential to pet health (food, attention, etc), some interactions are not so innocent and require the help of a specialized killing mechanism: the immune system.
Innate vs. Adaptive Immunity
The immune system, including that of dogs, cats, hamsters, etc. is divided into two distinct parts: the innate and adaptive. Innate immunity is any nonspecific, constitutively performed defense mechanism. Innate immunity occurs immediately upon infection and cannot adapt to specific microorganisms. The adaptive immunity, on the other hand, takes time to recognize a specific organism and mounts a specialized response involving the use of antibodies and specialized cells.
Innate Immunity of the Skin
- Anatomical Barriers: The epithelial cells of the skin are very tightly connected, acting not only as a barrier to water but also to microorganisms. These cells are also constantly sloughed off and replaced, aiding in the removal of any bacteria or other infectious particles that may have adhered to the skin.
- Chemical Barriers: Fatty acids in sweat create an acidic environment on the skin that is less likely to be inhabited by bacteria.
- Biological Barriers: Despite these barriers, the skin is inhabited by normal flora non-pathogenic bacteria that prevent the colonization of more harmful bacteria by providing competition for space and nutrients.
- Humoral Barriers: Humor is an old-fashioned term for fluid, and referred specifically to those of the body. Humoral immunity is therefore any part of immunity that functions within bodily fluids. While the skin isn't a bodily fluid, it contains a huge population of blood vessels, which carry bodily fluids.
Blood contains many proteins capable of limiting viral replication, dissolving bacterial cell walls, and preventing bacterial cell growth. Blood also has the ability to coagulate, which allows the isolation of invading microorganisms, preventing them from establishing a more dangerous systemic infection.
- Cellular Barriers: The blood also contains many specialized cells capable of killing and disposing of pathogens like bacteria and viruses. Macrophages are a great example: they basically wander around a particular area of the body, eating any particle that doesn't belong.
Maintaining Immunity through Healthy Skin
You can probably imagine how unhealthy skin can severely impair the ability to fight off pathogenic microorganisms. Unhealthy skin lacks the nutrients and integrity needed for the innate immune system to function. To keep your pet's skin healthy, be sure your pet receives a well-balanced diet. The proteins, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals in pet food are essential for skin function. Deficiencies in nutrition result in hardened, itchy skin as well as hair loss. The hair completely covering your pet's skin can also be a source of unhealthy skin. Tangled and matted pet fur pulls and pinches skin, as well as harboring harmful critters like ticks and fleas. Be sure to properly groom your pet at least once a week. When feeding, grooming and loving your pet, take care to remember how important the pet immune system is and provide it the attention and nutrients it requires.
Photo Credit: Niklas