The old adage prevention is better than cure is definitely true when it comes to the health of our pets. And an important area to consider is preventing diseases caused by parasites such as worms. Although there are a range of proven effective and safe products available to prevent serious infestations, increasingly owners, concerned about the possible side effects of conventional medicines, look for natural alternatives that they often perceive as safer. But are they worth trying?

Why worm?

The main worms that affect our pets in the UK are roundworms and tapeworms affecting the intestines, and lungworm.  Heavy burdens of intestinal worms can cause problems such as weight loss, vomiting and diarrhoea and even intestinal blockages. Lungworm can also be very serious. Mild cases may show signs such as a cough or wheeze. But more serious problems can occur in some dogs whose ability to clot their blood is affected by the parasite. In the worst affected cases this can prove fatal. There are also public health risks to consider; roundworm eggs can occasionally be picked up by people especially children and may cause serious problems including blindness. 

With what?

There is a lot of misleading information around. Products containing ingredients, such as garlic, turmeric, and even rabbit ears, are promoted as alternatives to worming medications. Unfortunately there is very little evidence that these products work and in some cases may even run the risk of serious harm to your pet.

The main concern with garlic as a treatment, is that as a member of the allium (onion family), ingestion by cats and dogs can be toxic. Scientific studies have been carried out into using garlic as a dewormer. They did demonstrate a reduction in worm egg production. However there is currently no evidence that garlic kills adult worms or reduces their numbers. Luckily a relatively large amount would have to be eaten to cause serious problems. But with little evidence of its efficacy and the risk of real harm it is definitely one to be avoided.  

It is composed of the microscopic remains of ancient plankton ground up into a powder. It is generally considered to work by desiccation – in other words drying out parasites. This could theoretically work for external parasites such as fleas but in the moist environment of the intestines seems very unlikely to be effective. There are no scientific studies showing it to be useful for worm control. Although food grade preparations are unlikely to be toxic there is a risk of irritation to lungs and skin when handled. 

There is some evidence that it can be effective for certain conditions but large doses are needed as it has low bioavailability. This means that the body struggles to absorb it from the gut. It appears to be safe for dogs but there is much less information available for its safety in our feline companions. There is currently little evidence that it is effective against worms. So it should not be relied upon until it’s effects can be proven.

Another branch of alternative medicine that many pet owners are tempted to turn to is homoeopathy.

Homoeopathy relies on the premise that “like cures like”.  Tiny amounts of a natural substance are highly diluted under the belief that the more diluted it is, the more powerful the “treatment”.  Unfortunately there is absolutely no scientific evidence for the efficacy of homoeopathy and many studies have shown it to be no more effective than a placebo.  Homoeopathic wormers should not be used in place of conventional wormers.

Other products touted as alternative to worming treatments include rabbit ears, apple cider vinegar, carrots and pumpkin seeds

Although they are unlikely to cause direct harm, these are ineffective. Other more risky recommendations include black walnut, wormwood, cloves and oregon grape.  These substances are not only ineffective as wormers but can highly be toxic if used incorrectly, cats are especially susceptible to toxins so even more care is needed in this species.

So what are the natural options?

If you are looking for more natural ways to control parasites in your pets there are some useful preventive measures that you might like to take. Ensure they are fed a good quality diet and avoid raw meats and carcases. Pick up poo and prevent your pet from eating it. Avoid areas where there is lots of animal faeces and clean housing regularly if kennelled or kept in enclosures. 

Sensible worming regimes are based on risk to the individual, not a one size fits all approach. For example young animals, cats that hunt frequently and multiple households should be wormed more frequently. Remember that you won’t necessarily see worms in your pets poop until very high numbers are present and your pet should be treated long before this happens.

Some authorities recommend faecal worm egg counts as an alternative to regular worming regimes. These work well in some species eg horses, but there is much less evidence for their use in our pet populations. It is important to note that there is even less evidence for natural treatments when it comes to lungworm and a proven product should be used to protect your pet. Speak to your vet about parasites. They will be happy to work with you to design a safe and effective worming regime tailored to your pets needs. 

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