Natural Therapies for Controlling Parasites in Dogs and Cats
By Shawn Messonnier, DVM

While not as common a problem in barn buddies as in horses, intestinal parasites can wreak havoc on a pet's system by absorbing nutrients from the intestinal tract and some can actually damage the lining of the intestines. This article will review the most common intestinal parasites and provide guidelines on prevention and treatment.

Various parasites (worms and protozoa) can infect dogs and cats. Because of their size and immature immune systems, puppies and kittens are at a greater risk of contracting the parasites and developing illness as a result of the infestation. Roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, tapeworms, coccidia, and giardial infections are most commonly diagnosed. Regardless of the type of parasite causing the problem, the most common clinical signs include diarrhea, a pot-bellied appearance, a rough haircoat, and a failure to thrive. Smaller pets with hookworm infections can also develop life-threatening anemia, as hookworms actually remove blood from the pet via their attachment to the intestinal lining.

Intestinal parasites are most often contracted by ingestion of infected feces, similar to the situation in horses. Tapeworms are the exception, as these worms are acquired from eating an infected intermediate host (usually a flea, rarely a rodent). There is another important difference about tapeworms: they are usually diagnosed when the owner sees segments of the tapeworms in the feces (they resemble small grains of rice). Other parasites produce microscopic eggs that are only seen when the feces are evaluated microscopically.

Prevention is much easier in dogs and cats than in horses. Simply eliminating your pet's contact with another pet's feces can prevent most infections. Adequate flea control is essential in preventing tapeworm infections. Feeding a natural wholesome diet makes the pet healthier and better able to deal with disease.
Finally, some of the monthly heartworm preventive medications can help (but not totally) prevent infection with some intestinal parasites.

Treatment involves deworming the pet according to a specific schedule depending upon which parasite is involved. While the focus of this article will be on some of the non-conventional therapies that can be safely used to deworm infected pets, it is important to point out that many pets can be safely dewormed with conventional medications. Unlike just 20 years ago, most of our conventional medications can be used very safely in dogs and cats. Side effects that were common with the more toxic deworming medications of past years such as vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramping, and muscle twitching are extremely uncommon (I have never seen these side effects).

Complementary therapies that have been discussed for treating intestinal parasites include homeopathics (Filix mas, Chenopodium, Cina, Abrotanum, or Santoninum), herbs (garlic, wormwood, black walnut, chamomile, Oregon grape), pumpkin seeds, and natural (not swimming pool) diatomaceous earth.

Pet owners inclined to using homeopathy as a preferred treatment have several choices for treating pets with parasites. The most commonly recommended therapy is the homeopathic remedy called Filix mas. It is usually given twice daily for several weeks. Filix mas seems to have affinity for treating tapeworms. Roundworms (ascarids) can be treated homeopathically with Chenopodium (the most commonly recommended therapy), Cina, Abrotanum, or Santoninum.

Garlic contains a number of nutrients and a number of sulfur compounds which have been shown to have medicinal qualities, especially allicin and alliin. Raw garlic can kill a wide variety of microorganisms by direct contact, including fungi, bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. Garlic is recommended for pets with tapeworms; it has shown effectiveness in treating people with roundworms and hookworms and is often recommended for dogs and cats with these or other parasites.

The hulls of black walnut are recommended for use as a deworming agent in pets. The active ingredients are purported to be tannins and alkaloids. Black walnut has been used to treat dogs and cats with tapeworms. While black walnut can be used safely, it can be very toxic due to the tannin component if used without proper training and care. Safer dewormers are preferred.

Wormwood is known as an herbal deworming agent. It is not usually recommended as it can be quite harsh on the pet, and can cause damage to the kidneys, liver, and nervous system. Safer deworming agents exist.

Chamomile and Oregon grape have been reported to have mild anti-parasite activity.

Ground pumpkin seeds or natural diatomaceous earth added to the pet's food has a long history of controlling parasites in dogs and cats. These 2 supplements are the most commonly recommended deworming therapies by holistic veterinarians, and they are very safe for pets. Additionally, supplementation with enzymes may also be helpful and can be used without side effects.

If you choose to try one of the listed complementary therapies instead of a conventional deworming medication, it is important to have your veterinarian perform a microscopic fecal analysis on several samples obtained over a 4-week period following treatment. Those pets that still have parasites should be treated with one of the conventional medications.

Finding the best treatment for a pet with parasites requires knowledge of which parasite is involved, and understanding the various treatment regimens. While this article provides information for your understanding, it's important to work with your veterinarian to find the most appropriate treatment for your pet. And as is true with any disease, prevention is always preferred to treatment.

About the author:
Dr. Shawn Messonnier is the author of "The Arthritis Solution for Dogs", "The Allergy Solution for Dogs", and the award-winning "The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats". For your weekly dose of holistic pet care, read Dr. Shawn's column, "The Holistic Pet", in your local paper, distributed by Knight Ridder.