[Updated July 7, 2017]
We now know that worms do much more than, as the childhood song had it, “play pinochle on your snout.” Manufacturers of deworming products have gone out of their way to let us know that, left unchecked, these pesky parasites can plague dogs that are in poor health, rob them of nutrition, attack vital organs, and cause unthriftyness, illness, and even death.
Well, yes and no. If a dog’s health is poor and he is hosting an uncontested parasite population, all sorts of bad things can happen. It is important to protect our dogs from parasites, but as it turns out, protection largely follows as a result of building the dog’s overall health. Toxic dewormers may be unnecessary to dislodge what few worms a strong and healthy animal might have.
Conventionally trained veterinarians routinely administer de-worming agents for roundworms as part of regular puppy care, for tapeworms when tapeworm segments are observed, for hookworms whenever they are diagnosed, and for whipworms if symptoms indicate a severe infestation. In addition, heartworm preventative is routinely prescribed in areas where that deadly pest has been identified.
But most holistic veterinary practitioners believe that a dog’s ability to withstand parasitic infection is a function of the animal’s overall health, and that tolerance for a low level of parasites is less harmful than toxic dewormers. They may counsel against routine deworming of puppies and adult dogs.
Parasite Prevention is Key
Both schools of medicine support parasite control through prevention, although their concepts of appropriate prevention methods may differ. Take tapeworms, for example. Dogs get tapeworms from swallowing fleas. The dog that never touches a flea never gets a tapeworm. For this reason, and because of all the other problems that fleas can cause, traditional veterinarians tend to focus their preventive efforts on flea eradication.
Holistic veterinarians prefer a multifaceted approach. Dr. Christina Chambreau, a veterinary homeopath from Baltimore, Maryland, says that improving the overall health of the dog is the key. “The main cure for repeated parasite problems is to work to have a healthy animal. Vaccinate the least, feed the best diet, and treat the overall health of the animal. Then they will stop having the problem,” she says.
Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, Ph.D., the author of the best-selling book, Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats, suggests that owners tolerate a low level of tapeworms in their dogs, only intervening when the parasites noticeably impact the animal’s health.
When necessary to assist a dog with tapeworm removal, Dr. Pitcairn combines homeopathic, herbal, and nutritional remedies. Feeding whole, raw pumpkin seeds, ground into a fine meal and added to each meal (one-quarter to one teaspoon, depending on animal’s size), is thought to irritate the worms, causing them to loosen their hold and pass out of the digestive tract. Wheat-germ oil, one-quarter to one teaspoon per meal, is believed to discourage tapeworms naturally. Some vegetable enzymes, especially those of the fig and papaya, supposedly eat away at the outer coating of the worm. Filix mas 3X (male fern), given as one tablet three times daily, is a homeopathic remedy for tapeworms.
Treatments for Roundworm
For roundworms, which he also recommends treating only in the case of severe infestation, Dr. Pitcairn again offers a multifaceted attack. He suggests giving the homeopathic remedy Cina 3X (Wormseed), one tablet three times daily for at least three weeks.
This treatment is accompanied by specific additions to the dog’s diet that help “scrub” the weakened worms out of the digestive tract. Pitcairn suggests adding one-half to two teaspoons of wheat or oat bran and the same quantity of grated raw carrots, turnips or beets and one-half to two cloves of fresh, chopped or grated garlic to the dog’s food per day. He also recommends adding one-quarter to one teaspoon of unrefined diatomaceous earth to each meal to irritate the outside of the worms, causing them to loosen their hold on the intestinal lining so they can be flushed out.
Like most mainstream veterinarians,Dr. Joan Freed, DVM, a traditional practitioner and veterinary chief of staff for the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley in Santa Clara, California, takes issue with the “live and let live” approach to roundworms.
“I would agree that a reasonable tapeworm load is relatively non-threatening,” says Freed, “but I would have a hard time advising against routine deworming of puppies. Veterinarians in private practice probably don’t see as many of the distended bellies associated with heavy roundworm infestation that we see in animal shelters.”
Freed maintains that although it is possible that puppies that have enjoyed good nutrition and a healthy environment may be less affected by worms than half-starved strays, even the apparently healthy puppies can suffer thickened intestinal walls resulting from roundworm damage.
The Alternative View to Animal Health Care
Conventional veterinarians and those practicing alternative medicine agree that a healthy dog is much better able to withstand parasitic invasions than one whose health is compromised. To this end, your natural health practitioner may recommend a comprehensive health care program that includes feeding a natural, home-cooked diet rather than prepared dog foods, avoiding the use of any and all pesticide-bearing shampoos, dips, powders, sprays, collars, and dewormers, and implementing exercise and massage programs to keep dogs at their peak of health.
Once a dog is truly healthy, minor visits from occasional parasites may be inconsequential, and major infestations are less likely to occur.
None of the holistic veterinarians we queried are completely opposed to using chemicals to control advanced internal parasites. Even Dr. Pitcairn recommends conventional parasite control when alternative methods are not immediately effective, and for treating or preventing the more serious parasites – such as hookworms – that present an immediate and significant threat to our dogs’ lives.
Dr. Chambreau has some additional suggestions for those contemplating the use of traditional dewormers. “If you have to treat the dog, do it as minimally as possible. If you know exactly what kind of worms the dog has, treat it for that type of worm only. Don’t give a medication that treats hookworms, tapeworms, whip worms, and roundworms when you have only roundworms. And follow up with herbal and nutritional supplements (ground pumpkin seeds, garlic, grated carrots, turnips, or beets, and bran, as mentioned above) to clear the worms completely from the system and to strengthen the dog’s own defenses against future pests.”
Parasites Most Often Infecting Dogs
Roundworms (Toxocara canis)
Puppies are infected in utero by roundworm larvae from the tissues of their mothers. The larvae migrate to developing fetuses and reach the puppies’ intestines a week after birth. Affected puppies have dull coats and are often potbellied and fail to grow. Worms may be vomited and are sometimes visible in the stools. Eggs are shed in the feces, and larvae can migrate in the tissues of many animals, including humans. Because of this, children should not handle lactating females or young puppies that have not been dewormed.
Tapeworms (Dipylidium caninum)
Dogs become infected with tapeworms by swallowing fleas. Signs of tapeworm infestation include unthriftiness, capricious appetite, irritability, rough coat, and mild diarrhea. Small, white tapeworm segments, the size of grains of rice, can be seen in the feces and sometimes clinging to the fur beneath the dog’s tail. In extreme cases, emaciation and seizures can occur. Tapeworms occasionally infect humans.
Hookworms (Ancyclostoma caninum)
Puppies can become infected with hookworm larvae through the milk and colostrum of their infected mothers. Adult dogs can ingest hookworm larva from contaminated ground where infected dogs have defecated. Hookworms are most common in the U.S. in the Southeast, as the eggs require warm, moist soil to hatch.
Hookworms cause severe anemia, often fatal in puppies. The pups that survive develop immunity, but may continue to suffer from chronic anemia. Adult, healthy dogs who harbor a few worms without showing clinical symptoms are of particular concern, as these dogs are the source of infection for puppies and other dogs.
Whipworms (Trichuris vulpis)
In light infections, whipworms produce no clinical symptoms and are relatively benign. If the worm burden increases it can cause internal hemorrhage with resulting weight loss, diarrhea, blood in the stool, and anemia. Worm eggs are easily susceptible to desiccation (drying out), so prevention relies on maintaining cleanliness in all the areas where the dog spends time. Take special care to eliminate moisture around the dog’s bed.