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Animal Skin and Allergy Clinic Blog

Your Pet’s Biggest Protector: the Pet Skin Function in the Immune System

Cat climbing treeDid you know that your skin is your largest organ? The same is true for most animals, including our pets. It is one of the most important, and varied, organs we have however we tend to take it a little for granted. Among other things, the pet skin function is the first line of defense in the immune system. And, when it is negatively impacted by health problems, it can cause serious trouble.

Skin Deep

The skin has many important functions. It holds everything together, provides a nice barrier to the outside world, helps regulate temperature, aids in sensation, makes vitamin D, and is even part of the immune system. Skin is part of what is known as the integumentary system which also includes hair, scales, feathers, nails, and hooves. This system is the protective layer of the body that works to try to keep harmful things out and hold the important things in.

Such a helpful organ is bound to be a little complicated. The skin is composed of many parts, residing in various layers on the body. The layers of the skin include:

The epidermis – This outer portion of the skin is composed of multiple layers. Most of the cells here are keratinocytes, producing the main part of what we think of as skin, hair, and nails.

The dermis – This part of the skin is where its strength comes from. It is also home to hair follicles, sweat glands, and other important players in skin function. Histamine producing cells (responsible for allergic reactions) and cells that process antigens (substances foreign to the body that produce an immune response) reside here.

The hypodermis – The deepest layer of the skin is mostly fat tissue, serving as padding and insulation. This is where blood vessels, nerves, and lymph vessels live.

The Skin and the Immune System

We don’t often think of skin in connection with immunity, but it is an integral part of the immune system. Because our skin comes in contact with the outside world continuously, it is the first interaction the body has with many antigens, such as pollens and dust.

The skin layers, especially the dermis, is full of cells that regulate the body’s immune responses. There are also physical barriers and secretions designed to help stop antigens from entering the body, along with regulating the population of micro-organisms on the skin’s surface.

When Good Skin Goes Bad

Sometimes, however, our pet’s skin fails as an immune organ. When the skin is working improperly, trouble isn’t far behind. Common problems that we see when pets have faulty skin function include:

Skin infection – Bacteria, yeast, and other organisms live on our pets all the time. They are considered the natural flora of the body. When the immune system is not working properly, however, they may overgrow, resulting in imbalance and even infection.

Parasitic infection – Like bacteria and yeast, small organisms can normally reside on the skin in limited numbers. Without a healthy, functioning immune system, they may overtake the skin and cause trouble. A good example of this is the demodex mite, which causes demodectic mange.

Atopy – Atopic dermatitis occurs when the normal physical barriers in the skin are faulty, resulting in the exposure of numerous antigens to the immune system. This causes red, itchy skin that often flares up throughout the year.

Tumors – Like any other cell in the body, immune cells can undergo mutations that result in tumors. Mast cells, histocytes, lymphocytes, and melanocytes are frequently implicated as the immune cells that can become cancerous.

Much of what we do at Animal Skin and Allergy Clinic involves the skin’s function in the immune system. It plays such a vital role in the health of our pets that when the skin isn’t functioning properly, it can make life very difficult for our furry friends. Thankfully our expert team, and continuing advances in modern veterinary medicine, are giving us more effective options to help pets with skin problems such as these.