The importance of muck for immunity

Are we too clean for our dogs?
Catherine O’Driscoll

In this article, I’m endorsing all the nutty dog ladies whose houses rarely see a mop or vacuum cleaner, and who regard mud as a design statement!

Have you ever asked how the canine species survived before we came along and sanitised everything for them – before we made sure that they didn’t eat rancid meat and cleared up their poo, washed their bowls, invited them into our sparkling homes, and kept them clean with shampoos and baths? And did you ever wonder how they survived for millions of years without worming treatments?

Here’s some advice from a typical veterinary website: “All bitches are infected with roundworm larvae. These lie hidden and dormant within the body of the bitch and become active during pregnancy, infecting the pups while they are still in the womb. Once the puppies are born, further worm infection comes from milk when they are suckling. Ideally, starting from day 40 of the pregnancy, bitches need to be wormed every day until 2 days after whelping.”

Puppies are born with roundworms unless the chemicals work. In addition, roundworm eggs and hookworm larvae reside in the earth, ready to be picked up by dogs of any age. Fleas also carry tapeworms and if a dog swallows fleas while grooming, he can become infested with tapeworms. Dogs can also swallow worms if they eat wildlife.

The American Association of Veterinary Parasitologists and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise that puppies should be dewormed at 2, 4, 6, 8, 12 and 16 weeks of age, and then at 6 months and a year, and twice yearly thereafter.

The rationale is that puppies with roundworm infestations have poor coats and a potbellied appearance; larvae can spread to the lungs and cause bronchitis. Hookworm are bloodsuckers and can drain nutrients from food, which can lead to anaemia, decreased vitality, and fatality in puppies. Tapeworms cause irritation and make the dog scoot his bottom on the ground. Whipworms can cause foul-smelling, tar-like diarrhoea. Heavy roundworm and tapeworm infestations can block intestinal passages. There is also a concern that canine worms can make humans ill.

Yet the species has managed to survive for millions of years whilst carrying worms. Indeed, with the bitch guaranteed to pass worms to her offspring, you have to ask whether worms have some sort of natural and protective role in dogs.

Since I went natural over twenty years ago, I haven’t wormed my puppies. My reasoning has been that worms must have a function, and unless there is an over-infestation and associated illness, why do it? I also question routine use of natural wormers. I also believe that processed pet food encourages worm infestation, since it leaves lots of gloopy residue that can’t be metabolised in the digestive system, which worms can thrive on. Raw food, on the other hand, is biologically appropriate, easily and speedily metabolised, and discourages worm and flea infestation.

James Newns, a retired British homoeopathic vet, once said to me: “It’s a bad idea to worm dogs because the chemicals wipe out all the worms. You need a sentinel worm in the body to eat up the worm eggs that continually enter, and to perform important functions in the body.”

So far, we’re just talking about opinion and natural, if not irresponsible, common sense, but there’s also a body of scientific evidence to back up these outrageous opinions.

A new book called, ‘An Epidemic of Absence – a new way of understanding allergies and autoimmune disease’ by Moises Velasquez-Manoff provides a wealth of stunning evidence to say that we have become more hygienic than is good for us or, I would add, our dogs. He explains why so many humans [and dogs] are participating in a modern epidemic of allergy and autoimmunity. I have to add, sadly, that the author totally missed the vaccine connection – but what he has to say on the hygiene theory is stunningly interesting nevertheless.

Moises is a journalist who has suffered from severe autoimmunity all his life. In an attempt to find a cure for his ailments, he went to Mexico to deliberately infect himself with a colony of hookworm. He is amongst a growing band of individuals who believe that, by getting rid of worms and over-sanitising our environment, we are creating an epidemic of allergic and autoimmune diseases in humans. His book makes fascinating reading (if you’re into this sort of thing!).

Velasquez-Manoff writes: “By changing our inner ecology, we’ve hobbled the critical suppressor arm of our immune system.”

He says that our bodies have evolved to co-exist with pathogens; our genes have altered over the millennia to deal with them – and that our immune systems are struggling without them. The tendencies underlying autoimmune disease have an evolved purpose other than causing misery by autoimmunity, he says, and this purpose relates to defense. If our immune systems are doing what they’ve evolved to do – that is, deal with the presence of viral, bacterial and worm infections – then we do not develop allergic and autoimmune diseases.

Study after study shows that, in parts of the world where people are forced to drink from muddy puddles, or where malaria is endemic, or where intestinal worms are common, there is less allergy, and less autoimmune disease. This mirrors a much earlier book by Dr Viera Scheibner, ‘Vaccinations, 100 Years of Orthodox Research,’ which shows that children who suffer normal childhood viruses such as measles and chicken pox do not tend to succumb to cancer and leukaemia.

In a painstaking and meticulous study of the progression of allergic and immune-mediated disease Velasquez-Manoff cites study after study to show that allergies and autoimmunity increased to epidemic proportions as we moved away from the farm and towards the cities [which also coincided with vaccination rates]. Despite genetic variants, the effects of pollution, and other factors, the roots of the modern epidemic keep pointing back towards an absence of muck, viruses and worms. Geneticists have looked closely at many communities around the world where the threat of viral and bacterial infection is high. They find that where worms, malaria, tuberculosis, and so on are present, allergy and autoimmunity is rare.

A few interesting snippets:

• The neurologist Giovanni Ristori at La Sapienza University injected twelve MS patients with a weakened version of the BCG bacillus. The progression of MS lessened dramatically and remained markedly diminished two years later. For reasons that weren’t entirely clear, BCG infection corrected the malfunction underlying this particular autoimmune disease and stopped it in its tracks.

• Irritable bowel disease (IBD) and Crohn’s disease have been found to be linked in humans to their socio-economic status while young. The cleaner one’s circumstances during childhood, the greater one’s chance of developing IBD in adulthood. Hot running water and a flush toilet while growing up elevated one’s risk later. Drinking from a well or stream, and defecating in an outhouse or in the bushes, lowered it. The gastroenterologist Joel Weinstock says, “Hygiene has made our lives better, but in the process of eliminating the ten or twenty things that made us sick, we’ve gotten rid of exposure to things that made us well.”

• Worms can prevent not just IBD, but other inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Inject mice with schistosome eggs, for example, and they become invulnerable to experimentally induced colitis – even if the mice are genetically IBD prone. In a study of humans with Crohn’s disease, 80% improved after drinking 2,500 microscopic T. suis eggs at three-week intervals. Three quarters of them went into total remission. No major side-effects were reported.

• Southern Indian patients with type-1 diabetes are fourteen times less likely to have been infected with mosquito-borne filarial worms than the population at large.

• Farmers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland inhale vastly more dust-mite dander and pollen yet they are less allergic than city dwellers. The scientist Braun-Fahrlander and others propose that allergic disease doesn’t result from excessive exposure to allergens, but from limited exposure to microbes.

• Exposure to Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite native to cats; the Hepatitis A virus, and Helicobacter pylori bacteria have been found to be protective against allergies in humans.

• The researcher Andrew Liu found that air conditioning more than halved the endotoxins in Denver apartments (endotoxins are toxins found in bacteria). However, homes without pets still carried enough animal danger to sensitize children against pets, but not enough microbes to prevent allergy. Allergens remained abundant, but the organism that might help us to tolerate them (endotoxins) had disappeared.

• In Russia, allergic sensitisation correlated with the number of microbes in drinking water. The more microbes a child drank, the lower the chance of allergy. These microbes included coliform bacteria, evidence of sewage seeping into the water supply. Administration of this ‘natural probiotic’ began early in life. Early exposure is key.

• Exposure to farm animals and barns seems protective against allergies. Those who spend their early lives inhaling farm bacterins while haying or milking cows were unlikely to develop allergies to dust mites and other allergens.

• Diversity is important. Exposure to different types of bacteria and fungus early in life seems protective.

• A study in Germany found that farmers’ children had half the hay fever of non-farmers in the same rural area. Protection depended on the frequency and duration of exposure to livestock. Even working with farm animals, but not living on a farm, reduced the odds of allergy by more than half. The effect remained even when controlling for a family history of allergy. Your mum and brothers might have terrible hay fever – but if you milked cows regularly you’d have far less hay fever and asthma. Looking at all the factors, the scientists have found that it’s because cowsheds, pigpens and stables are brimming with microbes, a wealth of bacteria from manure, animal feed, and mud.

• Children who live with dogs in the first six months of their lives have less allergy than children who don’t live with dogs in that early period. The more overcrowded a home, the better in terms of preventing allergy.

• The mother’s activity is very important. An allergic mother could, if she worked with animals while pregnant, develop the fetus’s innate immune system. Maternal farm exposure might shape a child’s immune status from an early stage. It begins in the womb. Ease the microbial pressure on mum, and the baby wheezes. Mom’s parasites also prevent baby rashes.

Velasquez-Manoff quotes parasite immunologists who posit that IgE antibodies, which are elevated in worm infections, are really a component of our parasite-controlling machinery. While elevated IgE signifies allergies (such as hayfever, asthma and, in the dog, skin problems) in places such as London and New York, high IgE fails to correlate with allergic disease in populations harbouring worms. Someone who harboured parasites in the tropics could have hundreds of times as much circulating IgE as a hay-fever stricken Londoner. And the worm-harbouring population in the tropics just wouldn’t have allergic disease.

As a result, scientists have ventured that maybe parasite defence mechanisms worked properly only in the context of the worms they had evolved to manage. “Allergy could be regarded as an evolutionary hangover from parasitism,” the scientist David Pritchard wrote in 1997. The immune system that finds itself without microbial pressure grows jumpy (allergies) and turns against the self (autoimmunity).

Velasquez-Manoff also looks into the links between autism and cancer as they relate to parasites and microbes, and the role of antibiotics. The book is over 380 pages long and brimming with over 8,500 scientific references and abstracts.

There are also words of warning: don’t go off half-cock and try to infect yourself or your dogs with worms, viruses or bacteria. Some versions are friendlier than others, and many are also species-specific. I’d like to see some veterinary scientists taking this field on-board on behalf of our companion animals.

I’ll also be looking for my next dog from a dirty woman or farmer who keep mum and puppies in the barn!