Good nutrition is an essential part of keeping your dog in the best of health. A well-balanced diet provides the nutrients and energy your dog needs to maintain their body’s functions and enjoy an active life. It is also important for supporting the immune system, which protects dogs from disease, as poor nutrition has been shown to contribute to reduced immunity in animals as well as people (1). With that in mind, how can a well-balanced diet help to ward off or manage worms in dogs?
Keeping the immune system healthy
There has been a study suggesting that a dog’s immune system can positively respond to worm infestation (2). However, this is only possible if the immune system is healthy. As mentioned, this depends greatly on good nutrition. Also, while the immune system has evolved to try and eliminate worms, a poor immune response can actually allow the intermediate life stages of worms to persist in an animal’s body — potentially resulting in tissue damage (3).
What’s the ideal diet?
With a wide variety of diets to choose from, it can be difficult for dog owners to select an appropriate food for their pet. Raw diets and home-cooked menus are popular amongst many dog fanciers, but these aren’t suitable for a number of reasons — chiefly because they may not be nutritionally balanced (4). Deficiencies of some nutrients can cause ill-health, including joint disease and reduced immunity, for example. These diets may also be contaminated with bacteria such as salmonella; a health risk for people as well as pets.
If a dog owner specifically prefers a raw or home-cooked menu for their pet, then it’s essential that they follow the advice of a veterinary nutritionist to make sure their much-loved companion gets all the nutrients they need to keep them healthy. They must also take care to reduce the risk of foodborne bacterial infections with good hygiene and proper refrigeration of raw foods.
The ideal diet for a dog consists of a good quality dry food that meets all the nutritional requirements for their life stage. There are a number of suitable brands which have formulas for growing puppies as well as canine senior citizens.
Other reasons why the right diet is essential
There is a medical condition in dogs known as pica. This is the tendency to eat inappropriate objects such as dirt, stones and grass. Dogs with pica are at greater risk of acquiring a worm infestation because the eggs of roundworm and whipworm can survive in the ground for quite some time. Not only that, but hookworm larvae may also be found in the soil. If a dog eats dirt then they may inadvertently eat worm eggs or larvae which can then develop into adult worms in their gastrointestinal tract.
Some have suggested that pica can be caused by nutritional deficiencies, but there is no scientific evidence to back this up. Instead, it is more likely to be associated with behavioural disorders. However, there are two situations where dietary modification can help with pica and consequently reduce a dog’s exposure to worms.
Firstly, some dogs with inflammatory bowel disease can show signs of pica. Part of the management of this condition is feeding them a hypoallergenic diet. It’s appropriate to choose a commercial hypoallergenic diet to reduce the risk of nutrient deficiencies and maintain good health and immunity.
Secondly, dogs that are hungry may eat strange things, including dirt, just to satisfy their appetite. This can occur when dogs are on a diet to lose weight; they’re eating fewer calories so they can end up feeling hungrier than usual. Their balanced weight loss food can be supplemented with bulky, high fibre foods that will make them feel fuller, such as pumpkin, so they are less likely to eat things they shouldn’t.
The importance of good feeding hygiene
A dog’s diet is important in keeping them healthy and helping to protect them from worms, but how they are fed also plays a role. Many people like to scatter their dog’s dry food on the ground so they can search for it and eat it slowly. This can make their food last longer and allow them to enjoy a more satisfying meal time. However, it can also increase the risk of worm infestation because as well as eating their food, they can also eat the soil — potentially containing worm eggs and larvae. To avoid this, dogs should be given their meal in a clean bowl to keep it off the ground.
Worms are common in dogs and can cause serious illness, especially in the young. A reliable treatment program is essential to keep them at bay, but good nutrition is also important. Feeding the right diet in an appropriate manner will keep a dog’s immune system strong and healthy and prevent them eating contaminated soil that may infect them with these potentially dangerous parasites.
1 “Alan A. Jackson and Philip C. Calder. (June 2004). Severe Undernutrition and Immunity, Handbook of Nutrition and Immunity M Eric Gershwin MD (Editor), Penelope Nestel PhD and Carl L Keen PhD. New York City, New York: Humana Press. 2 M Moreno; U Benavidez; H Carol; C Rosenkranz; M Welle; C Carmona; A Nieto; J A Chabalgoity (January 2004). Local and systemic immune responses to Echinococcus granulosus in experimentally infected dogs. Vet Parasitol. 119(1), 37-50. 3 E N Meeusen (August 1999). Immunology of helminth infections, with special reference to immunopathology. Vet Parasitol. 84(3-4), 259-73. 4 Stockman, J, Fascetti, AJ, Kass, PH, Larsen, JA.2013. Evaluation of recipes of home-prepared maintenance diets for dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 242(11), 1500-1505.
Author info: Dr Audrey Harvey is a graduate of the University of Queensland, Australia, and has worked in small animal practices for 25 years. She is particularly interested in obesity management and the role of exercise in resolving behaviour problems in dogs.