Are There Effective Alternatives to Chemical Dewormers?
How do horses in the wild survive without being dewormed?
Overall health and resistance are strong in the wild, free-roaming, undomesticated animals of the world. Wild horses and other animals are continuously exposed to parasites, but they develop a natural resistance to parasites and their harmful effects. Wild horses, unlike domesticated horses, have a choice of grazing areas, and nature has taught them that areas contaminated with fresh manure should be avoided - at least for a time.
The wild horses of Shackleford Banks, North Carolina roam on a 3,000-acre island and are the subjects of much study. One study shows that parasites are abundant on the island and the horses can become heavily parasitized by intestinal worms when they come into contact with parasite-infected manure while grazing. These horses are known to instinctively practice parasite-avoidance behavior - they defecate significantly more in non-grazing areas than in grazing areas, and they wait.
In the island environment, the parasites eventually succumb to the elements if they are not ingested. The level of infective parasites in the manure drops to a safe amount if they are not ingested after fifteen to seventeen days. The horses in the majority of the herds wait until after this time has passed before returning to the area to graze. Other factors influence where and when wild horses graze and defecate, but this study demonstrated that parasite avoidance is a factor in their foraging choices.
Also available to wild horses are the plants that have anti-parasitic properties. Selecting wild herbs such as southernwood, wormwood, mint and rosemary are an instinctive behavior for wild animals of many species. Nature has taught them how to sustain themselves nutritionally and medicinally by seeking out what they need from what is available. Nature obviously does not intend for an absolute zero parasite count or parasites would not exist. Resistance to them and their ill-effects is possible; otherwise wild horses and other wild animals would have died off long ago.
Is there a parasite problem?
In captivity, there usually is a parasite problem. The horse is limited to certain areas of grazing, thus limiting his ability to select uninfected grazing areas or to wait 17 days. Also, helpful herbs and other forage are often inaccessible. To reduce the level of parasites in pastures, regular dragging with a harrow or a weighted piece of chain-link fencing serves to break up the manure and expose the parasites to the elements, reducing the length of time they remain infective. Rotating pastures is another important practice. One can also plant an herb strip or patch in the pasture to allow the horses to pick and choose helpful herbs.
To determine if there is a parasite problem, regular fecal exams or other diagnostic tests are needed to verify the presence of parasites, and also to assess the efficiency of any method of deworming. The price of a fecal exam is approximately the same as a tube of chemical dewormer so it is worth checking a fecal sample to avoid introducing toxins to the system unnecessarily. Unfortunately, no tests are 100 percent accurate when determining the number and presence of parasites.
Life in the host's body is just one part of a parasite's life cycle, but it is a very important part. They do not remain in one part of the body at all times because they migrate throughout the host, feeding and developing as they go. Some parasites can reproduce plentifully inside the body if conditions are favorable, which is why they can become a problem. The parasites are well fed, but the body is only getting a fraction of the nutrients. Not only do parasites reduce the amount of food available to the horse, they also produce their own excrement. They can attach themselves to the delicate linings of the digestive tract, causing irritation, tearing, and the formation of scar tissue further inhibiting digestion and utilization of feed, and increasing the risk of infection.
Making conditions unfavorable to parasites
What do parasites like and dislike? They like a warm, moist, pH balanced, dark environment. They like certain foods and dislike others. They like an accommodating host without the ability to resist them. They dislike chemical dewormers, but they can become resistant to them.
Chemical dewormers are highly effective in killing parasites - for a time. Resistance to chemical dewormers, flea products and other anti-parasitic products, and even antibiotics, is an increasing problem. All these drugs seem to breed tougher enemies whereas natural remedies have been in use for centuries and are still effective today. There is now evidence that daily deworming has the same problem of building resistance.
Also a problem with the chemical dewormers is the problem of toxicity. The system has to eliminate the toxins efficiently, and if dewormers are given too often, the drug residue can build up and cause toxicity problems. Dewormers that are so effective must be used cautiously in heavily infested horses, because the sudden death of all the parasites at once could cause an intestinal blockage and kill the horse.
Horses that have a higher incidence of worm infestation have an underlying problem to begin with, and giving excessive amounts of toxins can only compound the problem. Approaching this type of horse holistically, with the complete picture in mind, and helping him to overcome the susceptibility by improving his overall health will have much greater benefit in the long run than repeatedly burdening the system with toxins.
Nutritionally, much can be done to minimize parasites. Proper nutrition is a most basic need for any living thing and plays an essential role in parasite control. A sound nutritional program that includes wholesome, fresh feed, vitamins, minerals and other important nutrients - while excluding chemical preservatives, sweeteners, and processed feedstuffs - is a necessity for a properly functioning system and a healthy, resistant horse. All that goes in needs to be either used or discarded; what can't be readily utilized creates more work in the process of elimination.
There are some healthful foods that horses enjoy but parasites dislike. To boost natural resistance and discourage parasites, any or a combination of these can be added regularly to the feed:
Pumpkin seeds, hulled (an ounce or two daily; can be soaked in water for a few hours to increase nutrient absorbability)
Carrots (one or two); turnips, or beets can also be offered
Freshly grated, raw garlic (2-3 cloves, can be grated in blender with a little water) - avoid using large amounts continuously; some sources say garlic can reach a mildly toxic level; use daily for a maximum of 3 weeks, recheck feces, resume when needed
Beneficial bacteria - DFMs (direct-fed microbials), saprophytes - follow package directions
Wheat bran (10-15 percent of feed ration) - can be used daily but not necessarily continuously; helps carry out the worms
Wheat germ oil - discourages tapeworms - see label directions
Herbs, nature's medicine
Not enough can be said about the virtues of herbs. They are the natural medicine for plant-eaters like horses. Because herbs are natural does not mean that they can be used carelessly, however; some herbs are very powerful and must be used with caution, especially during gestation. 'Natural' does not automatically mean 'safe', so use herbs sensibly and with proper guidance.
Herbs are nutritional as well as medicinal. Herbs can act to expel or destroy intestinal parasites depending on the amount of herb given and the duration of time it is in the digestive tract. Wormwood, southernwood, tansy, rue, and mint are effective anti-parasitics. Freshly grated raw garlic is relished by many horses and is very effective. Rosemary can be offered as well. Fennel seeds can also be added to the horse's food about twice a month to discourage worms.
For tea, use a strength of 1 oz. of dried herbs to 1 cup of boiling water, steeped for 15 minutes. Check with an equine herbalist for amounts and combinations when feeding herbs. When using fresh herbs, double the quantity as a general rule due to the increased water content. Consider planting an herb strip in your pasture as well.
A prepared herbal dewormer called Worm Check, labeled as an all-natural equine nutritional supplement, is available. It comes in a paste form in a handy tube and is administered orally. There are no contraindications; it is safe for any age and is safe during pregnancy. The all-natural herbal formula contains garlic, cloves, and a few other plants that have been used for centuries; it also contains diatomaceous earth (discussed in another section of this article) to add a mechanical effect. Tests have shown, however, that the herbal formula alone is just as effective. It can be safely given as often as desired, but every 2 to 4 months is the recommended dosage. Its effects have been shown to last 4 months in healthier horses, and 2 months in more compromised horses. Fecal checks are recommended by the manufacturer to determine the individual horse's needs.
Homeopathy - gentle, effective, safe
Homeopathic remedies, when selected according to the individual, treat the patient and not the disease. Homeopathy is a very gentle but very powerful medicine. A healthy animal will develop a better natural resistance to parasites, and if an animal is prone to parasites, another problem may need to be addressed. Proper homeopathic constitutional treatment can resolve such problems by stimulating the vital force to rebalance the underlying imbalance that allowed the low resistance in the first place.
Homeopathy does not manipulate or force the body; rather it stimulates the body into action, through the vital force, to heal itself. "Give a man a fish or teach a man to fish" may apply here. Giving a chemical dewormer may rid the body of the parasites, but it is temporary - they will move back in. With homeopathy, the body can become inhospitable so they do not move back in.
Each homeopathic remedy has its own unique "picture", and the closer the horse's symptoms match the picture, the better the results. Consult your homeopathic veterinarian for more information on homeopathic treatment and refer to a Materia Medica for further information on remedy pictures.
Homeopathic remedies come in varying potencies, or strengths, denoted on the label as a number followed by an X or C (Roman numerals), for example 30c. To differentiate between herbal remedies and homeopathic remedies, look for the X or C on the label.
The following list of remedies is a partial list; there are many other remedies capable of stimulating a body to expel and resist parasites. To expel worms and establish resistance, administering the remedy three times daily for about three weeks is suggested in some texts. Consult your holistic veterinarian for guidance.
Abrotanum 3x - for expulsion of ascarids (roundworms); symptom picture includes wasting and weakness of muscles of lower limbs, weakness of neck and back muscles, especially in older animals, pain over sacral area, distension of abdomen, umbilical discharge in young animals
Granatum 3x - for expulsion of tapeworms; symptom picture includes constant hunger, poor digestion, weight loss, pain near umbilicus, itching of anus, pain around shoulders
Cina 3x, or any potency - for expulsion of ascarids; symptom picture includes bloated abdomen, diarrhea, anal irritation, milky urine, sometimes dilated pupils and itching of nose and ears and spasmodic coughing, animal may have twitching and jerking of limbs and may grind teeth
Teucrium mar 3x - expels ascarids; symptom picture includes diarrhea, nasal discharges or obstruction, frequent sneezing, dry cough, red or inflamed eyes, increased appetite, excessive urination
Chenopodium 3x - for expulsion of especially hookworms but may have action against all worms; symptom picture includes sensitivity to sounds, shoulder pain near spine, especially right side, yellow foaming urine
Filix mas 3x - expels tapeworms; symptom picture includes constipation but sometimes diarrhea, inflamed lymph glands, vision sometimes affected, bloated abdomen, nose may itch
Equiopathics, a line of ready-made homeopathic remedy combinations for the horse, produces a dewormer formula made from several homeopathic remedies. It is available through various remedy supply companies and catalogs. Clinically proven, this dewormer acts by stimulating a change in the pH balance of the gut wall, making it an inhospitable place for parasites to attach themselves and mature, thus breaking the life cycle. It may be used for as long as necessary, but its residual protection lasts for over 90 days with no side effects, no resistance buildup, and no harsh chemicals. Directions are included with the product.
A homeopathic remedy does not vary between species; what is given to a person is the same thing that would be given to any animal. Equiopathics holds FDA marketing approval and is also approved for use in food producing animals. It is completely safe and non-toxic. Scientific testing upholds the claims of its efficacy; the research has been published in a paper for the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, proving its benefits.
Essential oils - Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy can be used to strengthen natural resistance to parasites. Essential oils (EOs), as inhalation therapy and external applications, are very effective, and a few preparation types are safe to use internally as well. Always check with your veterinarian and equine aromatherapy expert whenever using EOs internally. Avoid using aromatherapy with homeopathy because the strength of the aroma of EOs overpowers and depletes the energy in the delicate homeopathic remedies. Never store homeopathic remedies near aromatic substances, even when tightly capped.
The following aromatic mixture of essential oils makes a large quantity; drops may be substituted for all the ml measures for a small quantity. Consult your equine aromatherapist for other blends and suggestions to suit your individual horse.
Wild Marjoram, 10ml
Add 5 drops to food 3 times daily for three days for most horses; for sensitive ones, several drops diluted in aloe gel or a pure carrier oil can be applied externally to the horse's abdomen every few days, or offer a sniff each day.
Diatomaceous earth (DE) is "fossil shell flour", the remains of trillions of single celled algae called diatoms, whose shells are made from silica. When the diatoms die, their shells settle on the sea and lake floors and fossilize into a soft, chalky, rock-like substance. The DE particles are irregularly shaped with spiny, sharp edges.
DE is a fine, powdery dust that may be irritating to the respiratory lining so care should be taken to avoid breathing it in. Simply moistening the feed is a way to prevent it from irritating the horse. DE's action against parasites is mechanical rather than chemical. When ingested, DE's microscopic sharp edges pierce the protective outer layer of the parasites, causing them to die. It literally shreds all parasites nesting within intestinal walls. Tests have revealed it is harmless to the host's internal organs, even when fed in excess. DE is not hazardous to the host, but Crystalline Silica, which is a form of finely ground DE made for pool filters, is known to be an irritant, so make sure the DE you use is Codex Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth.
DE has FDA approval for internal and external use. It has been used for many years by the agricultural industry on pastures, in stored grain, and on plants and trees and even on the skin for insect control. DE is considered a digestive aid and a colon cleanser because its structure allows it to collect and carry out hard intestinal scale and debris without causing problems to the intestinal walls. Digestion is more efficient as a result. DE also contains trace minerals.
Several studies on animals, including horses, have shown both the effectiveness and the safety of DE, as evidenced by the absence of internal parasites and various other overall improvements. DE is basically a natural, non-chemical substance with the ability to control a wide variety of parasites. DE is a compatible natural compound of organic origin that works in harmony with the body. For internal use, 2 oz. by measure twice daily for one month (if you miss a day, you should start over again) to allow parasites returning to the intestines to be introduced to the DE; repeat 4 times yearly.
Deworming has been a common practice for thousands of years. Since man and horse got together, horse caretakers have used natural, safe and effective deworming practices until about 25 years ago, when toxic dewormers came to the market. However, these toxic dewormers, which effectively kill parasites, have been problematic in that they have killed more than just the parasites, parasites build immunity to them, and they do not contribute to the overall health of the horse. Nature still provides us with various gentle, effective, health-enhancing means of accomplishing the same goal, deworming, without causing harm. It is our responsibility as conscientious horse owners and caretakers to make the choice for better overall health, for the welfare of our horses.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to take the place of professional veterinary care. Always consult your veterinarian and other equine specialists regarding the proper care of your horse.
For more information:
Equiopathics and Homeopet
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The Botanical Animal
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TLC Animal Nutrition, Inc.
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Parkesburg, PA 19365
Washington Homeopathic Products
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Bethesda, MD 20814
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The Natural Horse Vet
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Unicoi, TN 37692