There are five species of parasitic worms that affect chickens: four live in the intestinal system and the fifth, which affect the respiratory system, are called gapeworms.
Gapeworms are common in pheasants and other birds including chickens, guinea fowl and turkeys. If you keep those species together be vigilant for the presence of gapeworm that might spread between them.
It’s always fun to watch our birds go after earthworms, but did you know they can also be hosts for gapeworm? Chickens can be infected directly by other birds which have ingested worm eggs and then pooped or coughed them out, or more commonly by eating intermediate hosts like earthworms, slugs or snails.
Once inside the body worm eggs hatch and the larvae penetrate the intestines before moving to the lungs and bronchi. Once there, they go through a larval moult, before traveling up to the trachea. By day seven, male and female gape worms attach to one another and are able to reproduce. Fully grown they are 1-2cm and look like a red ‘Y’.
Symptoms, as you can imagine, are similar to those found in respiratory infections: most common is gasping for breath; others include loss of appetite, head shaking, neck stretching, gurgling, coughing and choking. A severe infestation can result in death by suffocation. Young chicks, under 8 weeks, are particularly vulnerable.
The treatment of gapeworm will probably involve a call or visit to your veterinarian, so that medication can be prescribed for your infected bird. It’s a good idea to treat your whole flock as the chances are good that others might be infected.
The first treatment kills adult worms, while the subsequent treatment eradicates any worms that have hatched or been ingested in the interim. Depending on the wormer used the time between treatments is 7-14 days.
I haven’t experienced gapeworm firsthand, but I received this account from Amber, a relatively new chicken keeper on another gulf island community, Salt Spring Island.
Her favorite Barred Rock hen, Cruella, was infected with gape worms – a difficult thing for her to witness. Amber knew almost immediately her hen wasn’t herself: standing off on her own with her neck pulled into her body, looking sleepy. This persisted for a couple of days when Amber noticed she had stopped eating and was making a gagging motion every so often. Cruella would also move her beak back and forth in a weird motion, like she was trying to get the taste of something gritty out of her mouth.
Amber googled ‘gagging chicken’ and came up with the diagnosis. Armed with a video she visited her local farm vet. He was very accommodating, saying he’d charge for a visit if she brought Cruella in, but if he could make a diagnosis by watching the video he’d waive his fee. He concurred with Amber and prescribed 10ml Ivermectin applied topically: total bill $7.
Cruella was quarantined for five days while she was being treated. During this time she mostly stood in one place, hunched over like she was freezing.
“I would sit in our shed with her, stroking her back, feeding her scrambled eggs with spinach and singing her songs. Her favorite is one my mother used to sing me when I was a baby: “Mommy’s baby is gonna be alright, mommy’s baby is gonna be fine”. Simple stuff, but it has a soothing effect, I guess. Eventually she perked up and I put her back with the flock. It’s been a few months and I’m glad to say she’s doing fine.” – Amber
An ounce of prevention is worth more than a trip to the vet and a whole lot of heartache. With gapeworm that’s a difficult ask because most of our birds are outside and have access to eating earthworms.
Good hygiene practices will help though:
- Clean and disinfect your coop, feeders and waterers often.
- Dispose of shavings/bedding away from where your birds have access to digging through and pecking at poop infested with worm eggs.
- Recognize the symptoms of respiratory illnesses vs gape worm so you don’t waste time in diagnosing and treating a sick bird.
Should you stop feeding them earthworms? No. Gapeworm isn’t that common and the nutritional value in earthworms is high. I don’t think depriving your birds of worm treats is warranted. And for most people who have birds with direct contact with the soil, it’s impossible.
Additional material, photos & video courtesy of Bitchin’ Chickens friend Amber of Chateau Minvielle Farm