QUESTION: Our two-year old cat, Bruno, has been diagnosed with a tapeworm infection. As we have young kids, our vet recommended we deworm him and our other pets regularly. Can you suggest any natural alternatives?
ANSWER: Worms are a common problem in pets and infect most dogs and cats at some point in their lives. Most puppies are born with worms and will need regular worming depending on the risk of reinfection. Cats that hunt are more likely to get worms.
Worms can also infect people, and their larvae pose a health risk, especially to children. The roundworm Toxocara canis can even cause blindness if transmitted to humans.
There are two main types of worms that infect cats and dogs: roundworms (Nematodes) and tapeworms (Cestodes). In general, roundworms are more common in puppies and kittens, while tapeworms are more common in adult pets. Less common worms include lungworms, heartworms, whipworms and hookworms.
The canine roundworm (Toxocara canis) lives in the small intestine of dogs. Puppies can be infected in the womb, via their mother's milk or by eating the eggs of the parasites.
Cat roundworms (Toxocara cati), which look like pieces of string or vermicelli, are similarly picked up by kittens through their mother's milk or eating worm eggs. Cats can also be infected by eating small rodents.
Tapeworms have complicated life cycles involving passage through a second animal such as fleas or small rodents (called the "intermediate host") before they can infect their main host animal such as the dog or cat.
These worms are flat and can reach 19 inches (50 cm) in length, but the segments that become detached from the end of the tapeworm and fall out in feces resemble grains of rice. Dipylidium caninum, which is transmitted by fleas, is the most widely diagnosed tapeworm in both cats and dogs.
Dogs can become infected from soil contaminated by feces containing worm eggs or larvae, which can survive there for a whole year. Droppings from wild animals like foxes are also an important source of tapeworm larvae.
Swallowing tapeworm-infected fleas while grooming is another possible route of infection, along with eating infected small mammals like rabbits or mice.
The larvae of lungworm (Angiostrongylus vasorum), which is widespread in the UK, are carried by slugs and snails, and dogs can get infected when they accidentally eat them in grass or outdoor water sources. Foxes can also spread the disease. Lungworm larvae migrate via the digestive tract and bloodstream to the lungs and heart, where they can cause a host of serious problems.
Heartworm (Dirofilaria immitis), common in the US, is spread by mosquitoes and affects both dogs and cats. These worms, which reside in the heart, can grow to 12 inches long (30 cm). They can cause heart disease, heart failure and death in severe cases.
Signs and symptoms
Symptoms of infection differ depending on the age of your pet and the type of worm involved. Kittens and puppies may pass roundworms that look like strings in their stools or vomit up whole worms.
Less obvious signs to look out for include a pot belly, lethargy, vomiting and diarrhea. Some pets will scoot their bottom across the floor or lick or groom excessively.
Tapeworms, for example, may be seen as rice-sized grains around your pet's bottom, but most of the time they are invisible in the intestines, sucking away valuable nutrients and blood to eventually cause weakness and tiredness.
In cases of lungworm, your pet may show no symptoms at all, or they might tire easily, cough, and suffer from nose bleeds, anemia, weight loss, vomiting and diarrhea. Occasionally seizures and depression may be symptoms, and sudden death is also possible.
Similarly, heartworm may show no symptoms at all for the first several months of infection, after which pets may have a cough, tire more easily, lose weight or have difficulty breathing.
Diagnosis and conventional treatment
Since various other health conditions can cause the same symptoms, it is important to take your pet to the vet so they can rule out other issues. Most vets will enquire about worming during your pet's annual checkup, or during any visit.
If worms are suspected, a fecal sample will be required to test for worm segments and larvae.
Lungworms are diagnosed by fecal testing and x-rays, while an antigen test, x-rays and blood tests are needed to confirm heartworm.
There are many worming treatments available to buy without seeing your vet, but it is important to get the right product for your pet's lifestyle and particular infection, so it's best to see your vet first for a prescription. A variety of tablets, syrups and spot-on wormers are available, as well as flea treatments that work for worming too.
These medications are effective, but repeated use can come with its own set of problems and side-effects. The best plan of action is to try to prevent worms by reducing your pet's risk of infection and by raising healthy, strong pets.
Here are some holistic methods to help prevent worms and natural remedies to remove them.
Reduce the risk
For starters, follow these steps to try to minimize your pet's chances of picking up worms.
• Pick up your pet's feces as soon as possible and dispose of it safely.
• Pick up your dog's toys at the end of each day and store in a snail-proof box.
• Inspect your pet's water bowl for snails and mosquito larvae and clean regularly.
• Worm all new puppies and kittens.
• Stop your pet scavenging or hunting.
• Use natural pest prevention in your garden or yard.
Feed a healthy diet
Good quality diets, home cooked or sourced from protein-rich, human-grade products, will ensure your pets are strong enough to ward off and fight worm infections. See my book You Can Heal Your Pet for details on the healthiest diet for Bruno. In addition to garlic (see box), here are some other good options for intestinal support.
Bran. Adding some bran to your pet's diet can increase fiber and help get rid of intestinal worms.
Suggested dosage: ½ tsp for cats and dogs < 15 lbs (7 kg), 1-2 tsp for larger pets; add to food daily
Spices. Spicing up your pet's diet can also be beneficial. Cayenne pepper and hot pepper sauces such as Tabasco make the gut less hospitable to intestinal parasites, so adding a tiny amount to your pet's food if they find it palatable can help. But use with care, as too much can cause diarrhea.
A product called Homeopet Wrm Clear is popular in the US, although reviews of its efficacy have been mixed. It contains several homeopathic remedies including Kamala and Chenopodium, which are known to naturally remove worms. It's widely available to buy online with separate formulas for cats and dogs.
A variety of herbs can be used to treat worms, including black walnut, German chamomile, goldenseal, Oregon grape, wormwood, licorice, yarrow and yucca, although they're generally not as effective as the products you get from your vet.
If your pet can't tolerate conventional treatments, or for preventative purposes, you could give them a try. Here are some of the best commercial herbal products you can buy, which are suitable for cats and dogs. Follow the dosage instructions on the label.
Animal Herbology Pet Worm Wood Complex. This blend, available in the UK, contains wormwood, garlic and other herbs (www.animalherbology.co.uk).
Glacier Peak Holistics Daily Defense Powder. Sold in the US, this is a blend of herbs including garlic and Astragalus together with diatomaceous earth (see below; www.glacierpeakholistics.com).
Earth Animal No More Worms. This organic herbal blend available in the US is said to help to cleanse the intestines, making them less inhabitable by worms and parasites (www.earthanimal.com).
Dorwest Garlic & Fenugreek Tablets for Dogs And Cats. Similar to fresh garlic (see box), these tablets, available in the UK, are said to increase resistance to infection and provide immune system support (www.dorwest.com).
Discover diatomaceous earth
Composed of the fossilized remains of microscopic seashells called diatoms, this is a natural alternative to chemical dewormers that can be used topically or internally to mechanically destroy parasites.
Food-grade diatomaceous earth for pets is available from Wholistic Pet Organics in the US (www.wholisticpetorganics.com) and from Sure4pets in the UK (www.sure4pets.uk).
Go for garlic
Fresh garlic, which has antiparasitic and anti-inflammatory activity, can help cleanse the intestines and kill worms in dogs and cats. But make sure you use the correct dose. For dogs over 50 lbs (23 kg), give 2 tsp garlic, and small dogs, ¼ to ½ tsp of garlic. Give cats just a pinch of garlic daily for a maximum of 14 days.
Alternatively, feeding small amounts of garlic biscuits to dogs or chive treats to cats from time to time as part of a balanced diet may help. Both recipes (below) follow the same cooking instructions.
Canine garlic biscuits
1½ cup (120 g) oatmeal
¾ cup (100 g) self-rising flour
2 cloves garlic, ground to a paste
1 Tbsp honey
Feline chive treats
1 small bunch chives, finely chopped
1 cup (120 g) self-rising flour
1 free-range egg
4 oz (120 g) can sardines in sunflower oil (use all the oil from the can)
1 Preheat oven to 375°F/190°C. Grease an 8 × 11 inch (20 × 29 cm) baking sheet.
2 Mix together all the ingredients for either recipe in a large bowl to form a soft dough. Spread the mixture ½ inch (1 cm) deep on the baking tray. Bake for 25-30 minutes until just firm.
3 Remove from the oven and let cool. Cut into bite-sized squares.
4 Keep in an airtight, labeled container in the fridge for up to five days or freeze for up to one month.
Rohini Sathish, DVM, MSC, MRCVS, MHAO, MCIVT
Dr Sathish is an award-winning holistic vet with 22 years of experience. After training in acupuncture, acupressure, energy healing, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), animal communication and herbal medicine, she now actively integrates conventional veterinary treatments with complementary therapies and is co-author of You Can Heal Your Pet (Hay House UK, 2015). You can contact Dr Sathish at her website: www.rohinisholisticvetcare.com