Anthelmintic Treatment and the Stability of Parasite Distribution in Ruminants

Animals (Basel). 2023 Jun 5;13(11):1882. doi: 10.3390/ani13111882.


Parasites are generally overdispersed among their hosts, with far-reaching implications for their population dynamics and control. The factors determining parasite overdispersion have long been debated. In particular, stochastic parasite acquisition and individual host variation in density-dependent regulation through acquired host immunity have been identified as key factors, but their relative roles and possible interactions have seen little empirical exploration in parasite populations. Here, Taylor's power law is applied to test the hypothesis that periodic parasite removal destabilises the host-parasite relationship and increases variance in parasite burden around the mean. The slope of the power relationship was compared by analysis of covariance among 325 nematode populations in wild and domestic ruminants, exploiting that domestic ruminants are often routinely treated against parasite infections. In Haemonchus spp. and Trichostrongylus axei in domestic livestock, the slope increased with the frequency of anthelmintic treatment, supporting this hypothesis. In Nematodirus spp., against which acquired immunity is known to be strong, the slope was significantly greater in post-mortem worm burden data than in faecal egg counts, while this relationship did not hold for the less immunogenic genus Marshallagia. Considered together, these findings suggest that immunity acting through an exposure-dependent reduction in parasite fecundity stabilises variance in faecal egg counts, reducing overdispersion, and that periodic anthelmintic treatment interferes with this process and increases overdispersion. The results have implications for the diagnosis and control of parasitic infections in domestic animals, which are complicated by overdispersion, and for our understanding of parasite distribution in free-living wildlife. Parasite-host systems, in which treatment and immunity effectively mimic metapopulation processes of patch extinction and density dependence, could also yield general insights into the spatio-temporal stability of animal distributions.

Keywords: Taylor’s power law; aggregation; complex systems; fluctuation scaling; immunity; mechanism; metapopulation dynamics; overdispersion; parasite; regulation.

Grants and funding

The study was partially financed by the “Office National de la Chasse” and the bilateral Alliance France–UK British Council programme.