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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Sue Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Immune System Fuel

Updated: October 18th, 2018

Dogs with cancer, especially widespread cancer, have a lot of different health issues that need special attention.  The cancer has a way of overtaking and affecting many different body systems.  In order for us to beat the odds in any consistent way, we need to tend to each of these different cancer effects.  As readers of this blog know, dogs fighting cancer often need more than surgery, chemo and radiation.

One of the biggest oversights in modern medicine is the role of the immune system in cancer.  Sure, it is researched, but there is almost no practical use of this knowledge in actual clinical medicine.  If a veterinary client were to bring up the fact that systemic cancer almost always creates immune suppression to an average vet, there would be little actionable response.  Us doctors sometimes act like there is no issue if we are not well schooled in it, unfortunately.

So to reiterate a given fact: immune suppression goes along with cancer.  This has been discussed at length in the Guide and elsewhere in this blog.  Some common strategies have been to use beta glucans, AHCC, biobran, astragalus, Berez drops, and other items discussed.  However, I have not gone into good immune system fuel.  For in order for the engine to run, there must be fuel, regardless of whether we go from 4 to 8 cylinders.

White blood cells require an amino acid called L-glutamine to operate on 8 cylinders. Of course, we want turbocharged white blood cells to not only recognize and destroy cancer cells (ideally), but also protect the body from microbes.   This becomes even more important when the body is weakened due to stress, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Some amino acids are essential (without them the body develops nutritional deficiencies), but L-glutamine is now being viewed as “conditionally essential” during times of stress or treatments that create inflammation the body such as surgery or infection…and cancer of course should be on that list.  This means that the body needs it but only when there are certain conditions occurring.

L-glutamine has a whole slew of really beneficial effects for cancer patients.  It boosts the gobbling of microbes by white blood cells.  It causes more of the cells that make antibodies to be made.  It activates LAK  (lymphocyte activated killer) cells, which target abnormal body cells.  Glutamine helps block cancer cachexia, which is the loss of healthy muscle and body condition in ongoing cancer cases. For more information, click here.

As if that were not enough, glutamine helps the lining of the intestine in patients with diarrhea…and also helps with toxicity seen with chemo drugs like doxorubicin and cisplatin.  Glutamine also helps increase healthy, programmed cell suicide of cancer cells, limits tumor growth (there used to be a question about whether glutamine accelerated tumor growth as cancer cells can consume it too…now debunked), and may be beneficial in bone marrow transplant patients.  Cancer patients are frequently deficient in glutamine. Another good abstract is can be found here.

There has been a point raised that glutamine may act as an “excitotoxin”, and if so may injure nerve cells in the brain if used in high doses for long periods of time, especially for patients with pre-existing brain issues.  This point is debated in human literature and is not in canine research at all. However, just to be safe, we use modest doses in Apocaps.  If you have a dog with brain or seizure disorders, discuss this topic with your vet specifically.  You vet will likely say there is little to be concerned about, but it is always prudent to have your vet involved.

So fire up those 8 cylinders and get that puppy rolling!


Dr D






Leave a Comment

  1. Debbie W on January 16, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    Hi, Im not sure where to post this but I am desperately trying to find a treatment to ease my dogs symptoms. She is 13 1/2 yrs and has had mast cell cancer diagnosed since she was 2. We have followed a natural diet nearly all her life and for the last 5 plus years she has been on a low carb diet. In her life time she has had 22 lumps removed the majority being mast cell. Surgery now is not an option but recently she has developed a severe non productive cough and sounds asthmatic. My vet has treat her with codiene for 3 days and I told him of another treatment suggested to me by another vet who we have been getting various herbal remedies for a few of my dogs. He has heard sodium cromoglycate has been successful at stabilising histamine release which we are sure is the issue. She has been affected by this in the past but affecting stomach acid to which we have used anti histamine and antacid products, which she is currently on daily. I am hoping someone has some suggestions to eleviate her symptoms as she is otherwise happy and eating well

  2. Amy Chacon on November 1, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    By the way, I love the book….bought it….read it and have implemented many of the things you suggest. My baby girl Missy now has a “den” with black out curtains and taking some of the supplements you suggest and is doing well on them! Looking for more that I can do and came upon Avemar combined with beta glucs. Let em know what you think and thank you so much for everything you do for us and our dogs!

  3. Amy Chacon on November 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    Dr. Dressler I would love to get your opinion on Avemar in combo with Beta Glucans. I’m not sure about it so I would love to get your two cents. Thanks!

  4. David on October 12, 2012 at 7:33 am

    We are currently on Dr. Demain’s diet for shoulder cancer in our Golden. She loves the food, but is losing lots of weight. I only feed her cooked hamburger, steamed broccoli and steamed yellow squash. Should I add non low fat cottage cheese? I know the book suggests it, but it has carbs, and cancer loves carbs. I also read in the book where fats have Omega 6’s in them, which are bad. That stops me from adding bacon fat to her food.

    Any thoughts?

    David & Ms. Gracie

  5. Terrie Lavelle on October 3, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    Dear Drs. Dressler and Ettinger,
    We have an eight year old Sharpei mix who was diagnosed with oral Melanoma following removal of a mass located above her right first premolar on August 16, 2012. The initial tumor had a low mitotic index of 4. She had invasion to of the vessel wall,(tumor was on a stalk) so she subsequently underwent wide excision, including removal of the three teeth behind her canine, partial maxilectomy, and partial hard palate removal. –leaving greater than 1 cm tumor-free margins throughout. Unfortunately, the biopsied submandibular node, on the right, was positive for melanoma. CXR and ABD ultrasound have been negative. Bloodwork has been fine. She underwent oral exam under anesthesia last week, which showed no new lesions.
    She was placed on Cimetidine 400 mg b.i.d. and piroxicam 6 mg qd on 9/4/12. She began the University of Wisconsin tumor vaccine on 9/4/12. She has completed the weekly treatment x4 and begins the every other week schedule next week.
    Hope has always been on either a home-made diet (basically the original renal diet of Chicken or beef, rice, hard-boiled eggs, toast and lots of veggies. I am a vegetarian, so all of my dogs love veggies.) and/or Honest Kitchen. I also make them soups (chicken noodle, vegetable) on a regular basis. Hope is lactose intolerant, so she misses out on the cottage cheese that the others get. They also love veggie-burgers.
    I purchased your Cancer Survival Guide around the time of her diagnosis…there was discussion surrounding the use of Appocaps, as she is on the piroxicam for it’s anti-inflammatory properties. Initially, her oncologist felt use of the Appocaps would be fine, until I noted the advise to reduce either the Appocap or NSAID dose, when used concurrently. She is on one Appocap twice a day. She also gets Omega 3 supplements bid, and Everpup multivitamin on her food.
    Hope has tolerated this course well…is eating fine (her weight has remained stable at 50#) looks good — eyes bright, plays a little with the younger dogs, but mostly, she seems genuinely happy and as if she feels well.
    My delima is that my Hope has a bad disease….she looks great and seems to feel well, her labs are fine…..but, the vaccine won’t really “kick-in” for another 4 weeks. I feel as if there has got to be more that I can do. I am considering increasing the Appocaps to the full dose, as she has tolerated this “baby-dose” thus far. Her diet, I think, looks good. She undergoes acupuncture weekly to boost her immune system and treat her generalized arthritic issues.
    Do you have any other suggestions? I feel there just has got to be more that I can do or give her to help her fight this battle of her lifetime. Please let me know if you can think of anything. I will review the Survival Guide again, to see if I missed anything.
    I would like to thank you both for putting together the Dog Cancer Survival Guide. When I learned of Hope’s diagnosis, I was so bewildered, I just did not know where to turn. In reading your book, I was reminded that this isn’t the end of the world and that if there was ever a time that Hope needed me to get it together, this was it. Your book is so very helpful and hopeful. You have provided a true “gift” for those of us trying to survive the probable premature loss of one our best friends. The Survival Guide is not only informative, but also reminds us that our dogs may have cancer, and they may be dying, but they have a lot more living to do and as stewards to their well-being, we (I) must get it together to be there for my little buddy, until her last breath. This time is such a gift, as Hope is showing me that there is an awful lot of living still to do and that she wants to spend it with us.

    Thank you so much.
    Terrie Lavelle & Hope and her canine “brothers” — Winston, Marley & Dudley and Dad

    • Dr. Susan Ettinger on October 9, 2012 at 4:04 pm

      I applaud your positive attitude, I know it is not easy right now. And I thank you for your kind words about the book. It really makes me so happy that the book is informative and helpful.
      As for increasing Apocaps, I caution you from full dose while on piroxicam. Maybe your oncologist feels she does not need the anti-inflammatory now. Best to discuss.
      As for additional therapy, some oncologists will combine conventional chemo with the vaccine or even low dose oral chemo, to target anti-angiogenesis. These are not considered the standard of care, but maybe options to consider.
      Remember it’s hard to make specific recommendations for Hope through a blog. So discuss with your oncologist.
      You can consider other supplements as in the Guide. And keep the positive attitude. Hope is lucky to have you. I know you feel that way about her! =)
      All my best, Dr Sue

  6. Kris Graham on September 14, 2012 at 12:43 am


    Thanks so much for your sweet comments. I hope your dog, Chart, heals from his cancer and lives a long life with you. I am not familiar with Salvestrol. Can you tell me more about it? What is the benefit of L Glutamine for cancer? I did read yesterday that Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds are at high risk for hemangiosarcoma. Also, I believe Great Danes are at risk for it. My Axel is half German Shepherd. I most certainly hope he never gets this cancer.

    Give a big hug and kiss to Chart from me. German Shepherds are loyal dogs and they are smart as all get out. I used to have one many years ago. His name was Max. He had bowel cancer or something and was in a great deal of pain, so he had to be put to sleep. I believe he was about 7 years old, too. I wonder if he had hemangiosarcoma. Back then I didn’t know anything at all about dog cancer. I will tell you that we were having our yard sprayed for weeds by Chemlawn and also our house sprayed with pesticides for roaches. I didn’t know anything about anything back in those days. I was young and pretty ignorant about a whole lot of things.

    I’m also glad there are people in the world like you and others who post on this blog that love their animal companions madly and deeply.

    Big hug for you and Chart. Please keep us posted on his progress.

  7. Peter Long on September 13, 2012 at 9:52 am

    Hi Kris

    I was so very sad to read about your great loss. It is good to read that there are people like yourself out there that feels and gives so much back to our wonderful fury friends. I have been through what you have recently experienced, and know the dreadful pain and feeling of huge loss that consumes one day and night. I can only say that you are not alone out there, and that Maddie was blessed to have you and your husband.
    I am trying to cure my beloved boy right now from Hemangiosarcoma, and we have just reached 3,5 months. I feel about him as you did about Maddie. In fact he has to go for a minor (I hope) surgical proceedure tomorrow, and so i am already anxious.
    I do give him many supplements and follow the cancer diet. He is also on Salvestrol which I believe is a huge winner with all cancer types.
    Hope that Maddie’s memory will give you great comfort, together with the knowledge that she enjoyed a wonderful earthly life with you both.
    Feeling your pain.

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