Canine Immune System Boosters

Holistic practitioners suggest bovine colostrum for chronically ill dogs.


by Shannon Wilkinson

What does the first milk from a cow have to do with improving the health of dogs? According to anecdotal and scientific evidence, much more than you might imagine.

Colostrum, the protein-rich yellowish-fluid produced in lactation by mammals the first few days after birth, is Mother Nature’s first superfood.

It is not only nutritious, but also contains immune and growth factors, enzymes, proteins, and many other beneficial substances.

Research shows that newborns aren’t the only ones that are helped by colostrum. Bovine colostrum isn’t species specific, so dogs (and other mammals) can benefit from it, too. Claims abound for bovine colostrum’s ability to treat allergies, bacterial, or viral infections; autoimmune diseases; digestive problems; and even cancer. But is it all hype?

“It’s not a cure-all,” says Dr. Stephen Blake, a veterinarian with a holistic practice in San Diego. Rather, he explains, it’s a great tool to have in your medicine chest to help animals when they get into trouble. That being said, he has seen dramatic changes for the better in ill animals once they start taking colostrum.

Benefits of colostrum
Bovine colostrum has a long history as a nutritional supplement, particularly with the Indian Ayurvedic tradition. Interest in colostrum as a nutritional supplement or treatment for medical conditions has increased over the last few decades, particularly as technology has improved the ability to process and preserve it.

In humans, much of the maternal antibody protection is passed through the placenta during gestation, rather than through colostrum. This makes human colostrum an important, but not vital part of the neonate’s first hours. In contrast, there is no transmission of antibodies through the placenta with cows and other hooved animals. Nature has solved this problem by making bovine colostrum even richer in antibodies and other immune system enhancers to protect the newborn calf.

Bovine colostrum contains more than 250 beneficial substances, from simple nutritional elements such as protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals, to more complex material such as lactoferrin, transfer factors, growth factors, and immunoglobulins or antibodies.

“Colostrum’s intrinsic value is that the ingredients are all together in a nice package,” says Dr. Blake. “It is a natural whole food that is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Using colostrum
Colostrum is the first product Dr. Blake reaches for when a dog presents with gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea. “In my experience, 95 percent of all diarrheas will resolve using colostrum rather than antibiotics,” says Dr. Blake. In addition to resolving the immediate problem, the colostrum may actually help heal the intestinal tract and keep it healthy.

This was precisely the experience of Chancey Marie, a 10-year-old Great Dane who had suffered from irritable bowel syndrome for years. About two years ago, her guardian, Cathy Cunningham, owner of VIP Pet Food Delivery in Oregon, started giving Chancey Marie colostrum. Within weeks her previously frequent diarrhea had decreased significantly. In addition, Chancey Marie, no youngster (particularly for a giant breed), is now full of energy. She even enjoys going jogging for a few miles with Cunningham’s husband several times a week.

Dr. Blake also finds colostrum useful for treating immune problems, whether they are caused by an underactive immune system leaving a dog open to infection, or a hyperactive immune system causing autoimmune diseases. “The proline-rich polypeptides help balance the thymus gland,” he explains. Since the thymus gland is chiefly responsible for directing the activity of the entire immune system, a balanced thymus gland can translate to a balanced immune system.

Problems with joints and connective tissue, such as hip dysplasia, degenerative arthritis, or cruciate ligament issues, have also improved with colostrum supplementation. “Without growth factors, all the chondroitin in the world won’t help,” explains Dr. Blake. “If the body can’t replicate cells, then it can’t heal. The growth factors in colostrum can facilitate the body’s own regenerative processes and even better utilize supplements such as chondroitin and glucosamine.”

Side effects
Generally speaking, Dr. Blake recommends colostrum for every sick animal, regardless of illness, and every geriatric animal under his care. Some animals, particularly those who are very ill with chronic disease, are started on no more than a pinch of colostrum. He will then work very slowly to increase the dose to his normal levels of about one-quarter to one-third of a teaspoon per 25 lbs. of bodyweight.

Most dogs like the flavor of colostrum; it’s reminiscent of powdered milk, making it easy to administer. Many times, a dog will lick the powder right up, says Blake, although mixing it in food or “pilling” with the capsules are effective alternatives.

Side effects are quite rare, assures Dr. Blake, although problems with colostrum can include diarrhea or vomiting. If these symptoms do occur, he suggests stopping the colostrum, then restarting it more slowly and in much smaller amounts. He says that some animals may also experience a “healing crisis,” with symptoms getting worse before getting better. As with side effects, the best treatment in these instances is to simply stop the supplement and then restart it in smaller amounts.

It’s important to give colostrum ample time to work. While some people might see nearly immediate improvement, this isn’t always the case, particularly with chronic illness. Allow at least one month for every year the dog has been unwell, and that often begins at birth, suggests Dr. Blake.

Topical wonders
Colostrum also really performs as a topical. It can be applied as a paste to virtually any skin problem such as abscesses, wounds, or surgical incisions. Following her positive experiences with using colostrum for her old Great Dane, Cathy Cunningham didn’t hesitate to reach for the colostrum when her four-year-old Dane developed a rash on her belly. “It resembled ringworm,” Cunningham says, but a paste of colostrum and Oxy Drops [a commercial liquid antibacterial agent] cleared the rash up in a matter of days, never to return.

My own Great Dane, five-year-old Booker, has had hot spots from time to time that worsen with chewing and biting. Sometimes the sores last for weeks, require shaving, and keep us all up due to Booker’s chewing and licking of the inflamed areas. After hearing about colostrum from a number of my holistically oriented friends, I decided to try it on Booker’s newest hot spot. I applied the paste before bedtime. When we got up in the morning, there was no sign of the red, oozy sore that he had the night before. Plus, it has worked every time it has been applied since then.

Part greater than the sum?
While Dr. Blake believes in and promotes whole colostrum supplements, some other practitioners attribute its effects to one specific component present in colostrum: transfer factor.

Transfer factors were originally discovered more than 50 years ago by Dr. H. Sherwood Lawrence, while he was researching tuberculosis. He discovered a molecule in white blood cells that could transfer immunity from the donor to the recipient.

In the 1980s researchers found this same transfer factor molecule in bovine colostrum. Since that time, transfer factors have been isolated in other substances, including the yolk of chicken eggs.

To harness the potential of this isolate, a network marketing company called 4Life Research, of Sandy, Utah, licensed a patented way to extract the raw transfer factors from bovine colostrum collected from two certified organic dairy herds. The extract is then dehydrated and packaged into a variety of forms. The product, called Transfer Factor™, is available as a supplement specifically for humans, dogs, cats, and horses.

According to company literature, the concentrated extract from colostrum is a more potent way to provide this key molecule. One capsule of Transfer Factor contains as much transfer factor as 90 capsules of some brands of colostrum supplements. (Remember, some veterinarians, such as Dr. Blake, prefer to administer colostrum in its whole form, without a concentration of any component.)

Though the product is taken orally, the transfer factor molecules don’t need to be digested to work, explains Bill Burlingame, DVM, of Marysville, Washington. “They are simply absorbed through the mucous membranes of the oral cavity or small intestine.”

Multiple products
The 4Life company includes transfer factor in a number of supplements, from the original Transfer Factor to combination products developed specifically for different health concerns and species, such as Transfer Factor Cardio™ and Canine Complete™.

The 4Life animal formulas are a combination of a line of nutritionals developed by Joe Ramaekers, DVM, which have been combined with Transfer Factor to create new products.

“The synergism between the complete supplement and the effect of Transfer Factor is what really works,” says Burlingame. In order to patent the blend, he explains, it was first shown how animals responded to the supplement blend without Transfer Factor, then how animals responded to Transfer Factor alone, and finally how animals responded to the combination. The result, he says, was more than just A plus B.

One of his favorite products (especially for use with cancer patients, he says) is Transfer Factor Plus™; the “plus” is a combination of potent immune stimulants, including Maitake and Shiitake mushrooms, Cordyceps sinensis (a Chinese herb), inositol hexaphosphate (IP6), beta-glucans, beta-sistosterol, and mannans (from aloe).

Five years ago, when Dr. Burlingame started using Transfer Factor and Transfer Factor Plus™ in his veterinary practice, he didn’t always get the results he hoped for. Since then, he says, he’s discovered that for maximum benefit, Transfer Factor needs to be started early and at high enough doses.

“It’s a numbers game when you’re dealing with bacteria and viruses,” he says. It is crucial to get high enough numbers of transfer factors into the system to combat the high levels of bacteria or viruses. Since using the Canine Complete Transfer Factor supplement, he sees more positive responses.

How to administer
Colostrum and transfer factor supplements are used for a wide variety of health issues, from gastric distress to cancer, allergies, and autoimmune diseases. Many of their uses overlap, and some people have found success with one product but not the other.

Dr. Burlingame uses Transfer Factor in many of the same situations where Dr. Blake chooses colostrum, such as viral or bacterial infections and immune disease.

Recently, Dr. Burlingame had a four-month-old puppy come into to his clinic. The puppy had bloody diarrhea and all the symptoms of parvovirus. In addition to the typical antibiotics, antiemetics, and IV fluids, he gave the puppy 1,400 mgs per day of Transfer Factor. The puppy was home in three days. “I wish I had this a long time ago,” he says.

According to Dr. Burlingame, Transfer Factor usually takes about 48 to 72 hours to educate the immune system. He looks for a regression in symptoms, particularly in the case of infections, within the first 48 to 72 hours. He says he will often see an improvement or increase in white blood cell counts in that time frame as well. And, overall, the patient will begin to feel and therefore act better.

With longer-term treatment, particularly using the Canine Complete product, Dr. Burlingame has found that many dogs can do well on reduced amounts of other supplements and medications they must take.

He also has had success using Canine Complete with more chronic immune system problems such as allergies. He feels that this product ensures an allergic dog has the nutrients necessary to function properly, as well as helps modulate the immune response.

Burlingame says that, like colostrum, Transfer Factor is a safe product and side effects are rare. In addition, because the Transfer Factor molecule is absorbed in the mucosa rather than digested, even very ill animals, particularly those with impaired digestion, can benefit quickly from being given the product.

Burlingame usually recommends that guardians use Canine Complete, as the best all-around supplement containing Transfer Factor for dogs.

Although he highly recommends Transfer Factor for dogs with autoimmune disease, Burlingame suggests that the Transfer Factor Plus product is contraindicated for these dogs; the “Plus” ingredients, including several potent immune stimulants, could possibly overstimulate an already overactive immune system.

Shannon Wilkinson is a TTouch practitioner who lives with two dogs, two cats, and a husband in Portland, Oregon.