Ticks, what is the point of them?
Ask and it shall be given
It often happens in my life. A question is asked, by me or to me, and things start to unfold. Like a carpet unrolling before me, leading my mind. The path does not always lead to the answer. In fact it tends to lead to more questions. But the act of questioning always brings more clarity.
Why do ticks exist?
Anyway, the other day, as we did our daily tick check of the horses, Prasado said a bit grumpily, “Why do ticks exist anyway? Is there any point to them?”
Clunk clink and my cogs start turning. As we live in an interconnected and harmonious universe, then everything (yes, even ticks!) must be beneficial. Everything has a role to play and if I don’t see what that is, I should look more closely.
Ticks are yucky
Ticks are the bane of our life here in the Alentejo. As soon as the heat of summer subsides and the grass starts to grow, out they come. They invade the horses’ manes leaving sticky yellow goo, and sometimes suppurating wounds. We must always be watchful for the diseases they carry. And squashing blood filled ticks is just yucky! Every day we do a thorough check and remove any ticks we find on the animals.
Re-viewing the tick
That morning, as I searched through Doodle’s mane, doing the job of an egret, my neurons started firing. Out of random dots a picture emerged:
Ticks are blood suckers
Blood letting is a cure for excess iron (read more about this in one of my favourite books, Survival of the Sickest)
Horses do not excrete iron
One of the major problems for domesticated horses (in Northern Europe at least) is the so-called Metabolic syndrome
One of the precursors to the development of this syndrome is iron overload
Worms also cause bleeding
Is it possible blood letting is important to horse health? That over-control of parasites is causing illness?
And what about worms?
As is the way of things, a separate chain of events revealed another angle of the puzzle.
As a lifelong horse guardian I was deeply indoctrinated with the idea that worms are evil and must be killed. Regular worming has been a standard part of horse management for generations. As a child I remember the vet coming to tube worm the horses in the autumn, not so pleasant. As a teenager I remember the excitement of ivermectin paste, so handy, so efficient. Now you could control worms without the vet.
A couple of decades later and worms are resistant to ivermectin. So vets recommend fecal egg counts and worming only if necessary. It is no longer thought necessary to wipe out every last worm. The theory is that a healthy horse can tolerate a certain level of worm infestation (hear the language). This is a step forward, but still rooted in the adversarial system of healthcare we have been raised upon.
Personally, I now see worms as an important part of the horse’s system, and an overload of worms as a symptom of lowered immunity. So I mostly leave my horses to balance their own wormload. They have enough anthelmintic herbs to eat if they feel they need help. I keep their stresses low and their immune system optimised. I also do regular fecal egg counts, to check for worm burden, just so I know what’s going on.
The worm/ tick axis
“But what have worms got to do with ticks?” you ask. This. Recently we worm checked. The results were interesting. So interesting I thought maybe they were a mistake and got a second opinion.
The horse I considered most likely to have a high worm burden had an egg count of zero. She is also the only horse who had body ticks, tiny little blood suckers all over her body. She is the horse who reacts badly to insects and gets itchy just looking at a fly.
And then there is the horse I NEVER worry about. The three year old filly, with the perfect weight and shining vitality. The one who hardly ever had a tick on her and zero reactivity. She had a fecal egg count of 4,700. Four thousand seven hundred!!! I’ve never had a count that high. New lab, maybe it was a mistake? Called the vet, who said don’t worry, young horses often have high counts, just worm her.
What does this all mean?
Do we need worms?
Of course I should have rushed out and bought the chemicals. But I didn’t. I held my natural horse carer ground. She’s young, she needs to build immunity and maybe nature knows more than I do? Maybe she needs those worms? If I wipe them all out now, how will that affect her immunity building? Maybe we’re back to iron levels now, and how they help protect against infectious disease?
In the other side of my brain, all the vets, trainers and other expert voices from my past life are screaming, “Worm her, worm her, worm her!” So I compromised. I added diatamaceous earth and neem powder to her food. After a month I retested with my trusted friend Pauhla Whitaker, worm enthusiast extraodinaire. FEC down to 945.
The Chemical Challenge
Why, at this stage, did I decide to do the chemical thing? I’m not quite sure looking back. Maybe because she’s not mine? Maybe because those knowledgeable voices wore me down? Maybe I thought the risk of not worming her greater than any potential challenge to the body of a healthy young horse? Maybe because I needed the next piece in the puzzle? Whatever. I wormed her with moxidectrin.
2 days later she has a tick bite that swells up like a plum. Then another. Luckily that phase only lasted a couple of days, thanks to intervention with essential oils. But since then she has more ticks on a regular basis.
In every other way she looks as healthy as ever. When I offer her herbs she takes a little of this or that, but her eating is not urgent, as it is when a horse really needs the herb offered. So she feels fine. Is her new sensitivity a coincidence? I think not. Somehow, having her worms wiped out made her more attractive to ticks.
So this is where I am at with the original question. Ticks and worms are part of the equine eco-system. They may help horses control iron by blood letting. High iron leads to increased risk of infectious disease, poor mineral uptake, and metabolic distress. So ticks help horses.
But what about the disease they carry? Piroplasmosis usually attacks stressed horses, weakening an animal who is already challenged, hastening its death. This is also beneficial to a wild horse. No long, drawn out suffering. So a good thing.
In addition, there may be some sort of balance between worm load and resistance to insects (and skin sensitivity). It is possible that human’s over aggressive control of parasites contributes to some common health problems.
Too much of a good thing?
I’m not saying you should start letting ticks take over your horses, or that wormers will become obsolete. As long as your horses are confined (no matter how large the area) you are responsible for making sure they get what they need.
In the wild, horses would balance their worm load by seeking out and eating anthelmintic plants, clay or charcoal. They protect themselves from insect infestation by rolling in dirt, or aromatic plants, or submerging themselves in water. Birds would also help keep them free of insects by picking them off their backs.
In a domestic environment, horses are usually deprived of any chance for self-medication, itself a stress. But you can provide your horses the herbs they crave, by putting some herbs in bowls and letting your horse choose which ones he would like to eat. For worm control I offer, wormwood, neem leaf powder, milk thistle seed, and green clay.
I protect my horses (and dogs) from ticks using a blend of diatamaceous earth, clay and neem leaf powder, imitating a good roll in the dirt by rubbing it through their mane and coat. And I play the role of a bird by manually removing the bugs.
The more you can mimic nature and provide a horse’s natural needs, the less need you will have -if any- for chemicals. Anything toxic enough to kill ticks for 30 days, challenges a horse’s bio-system rather than supporting it, reducing their natural bug resistance in the long run. Plus the ‘total destruction’ approach damages the balance of nature in other ways we have not yet discovered.
Well, that’s my opinion anyway! What do you think?
Fascinating reading thank you! It is so easy to reach out for the chemical wormers etc as a “quick” way of dealing with equine problems rather than working it out as you do above in 1) what is best for the horse? and 2) what is holistic and natural and what would happen in the wild
So glad you enjoyed. Thinking things through and not stopping at the first answer is so important 🙂
This reminds me of a study done on children with severe allergies and immune disorders many years ago. The doctor discovered that they were basically too clean and had had no exposure to bacteria, viruses, parasites, including worms, which had completely short circuited their developing immune systems. He then infected his test group with pinworms and ALL their allergic/immune symptoms promptly disappeared. So yes, the immune system needs a job and yes parasites do thrive in vulnerable animals speeding their end.
That said, in a natural environment, horses don’t eat where they shit, minimizing their exposure to worm eggs. So if you do not want to worm, make sure that your horses do not have to eat feed that is contaminated with manure. And forget the manure spreader as left to their own devices they also tend to mound up their manure, making piles that compost, heating up and killing pathogens, as well as making a nice warm soft place to sleep. Why any one ever thought that spreading horse manure on horse pasture was a good plan is beyond me.
That said I personally have a hard time feeling tick friendly. Having looked at pictures of a ticks by electron microscope, I am pretty sure they are the embodiment of evil alien life forms come here for some nefarious purpose of world domination.
Totally agree. That study you mention was a Eureka! moment for me when I first read it. And the manure thing, I’ve got a whole other blog on that one. And as for ticks, evil aliens is right. Despite my kind words, I am so happy when I find dead ones on my horses, all desiccated by the diatomaceous earth 🙂
I have had these thoughts in other areas and had not applied it to worms and ticks. Thanks! Of COURSE worms and ticks have a place in the ecosystem – it makes sense. It’s the BALANCE that’s important hey? Things are usually only a problem when they are out of balance. Hmm that brings up the question of how would this relate to a paralysis tick which we have a bit to the north of us. It’s funny how these ticks affects some people and animals and not others…
Paralysis ticks are the scariest of all I think, mean and nasty! My current understanding of why some creatures are affected by these diseases is the strength of the immune system. Low stress, strong immune means no dis-ease symptoms. Also, possibly early exposure as horses imported from disease free areas, such as UK are much more likely to be badly affected by the disease than those who grow up with it. I have good example within my herd of horses who have come from UK, Israel, and locally. The UK one was infected at some stage after arrival in Portugal Although has never been seriously ill with it and his blood test is negative, he clearly shows symptoms when stressed in any way (yellow gums, stiffness in hind quarters, bad temper, slightly elevated temperature once or twice)and I regularly have to help him rebalance with herbs and essential oils. The Israeli one, who grew up covered with ticks, and was tested positive as a carrier for Babesia caballi before we left Israel is one of the healthiest horses in the herd, with nary a symptom…..
I live at the current epicentre of Lyme Disease in the U.S. So many people are SO sick from Lyme, and the medical establishment doesn’t even recognize it most of the time. Lyme is a tick-borne disease, and not the only one – we have bartonella and babesiosis, to name but two. I feel it’s a problem which will never go away, and that the key may be to learn how to live with it. But the people I know who are actively seeking treatment tend to be well educated and interested in alternative methods of healing, and they still find that the only way they can get real improvement in their health is to go the mega-dosage of antibiotics route. I don’t know the answer, but it’s a huge problem.