Should you worm your chickens?

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This is one of those questions that long time chicken keepers all have strong opinions on.  Should you worm your chickens regularly or should you rely on dietary supplements to keep them healthy?  In the end, it’s a question that every flock owner needs to answer for themselves based on their on their own personal animal husbandry philosophy.   So how to decide what’s right for you?  First let’s look at worms themselves.

Types of worms

“Worms” are a general term that refer to internal parasites that can live inside most any animal.  There are several kinds of worms that could effect your chicken, but these are the ones backyard chicken keepers are most likely to encounter.

Round worms: Some of the most common worms for chickens.  These parasites live in the digestive tract and can grow to about 2-4 inches in length.  They can be some of the easiest to diagnose because they are large enough that you can see them plainly in your chicken’s droppings.  They will look like little pieces of spaghetti.  Round worms can not be transmitted to humans, but they do have the ability in an extreme infestation to move into the cloaca where they can get into an egg before the shell is formed, making for a nasty discovery when you crack the egg open.  Because they live in the digestive tract, they can interfere with your chicken’s ability to absorb nutrients from their food.  Chickens with a round worm infestation will develop anemia, loose weight despite eating and have a pale comb and pale yolk in her eggs.  Left unchecked a round worm infestation could eventually lead to death.

Caecal worms: Another worm that can live in the digestive tract, caecal worms are smaller (about 1/2 inch) and a greyish white.  These worms are common, but are not terribly dangerous to the chicken.  Most birds will not display any symptoms from caecal worms

Gape worms:  These worms live in the chicken’s trachea & lungs.  They are red, shaped like a “Y” and only about an inch long.  Gape worms are pretty uncommon in chickens, but the symptoms are unmistakable.  The chicken will be constantly shaking their head, trying to dislodge the feeling of the worms in their throat.  They will also be gasping for air and coughing.  If the infestation gets bad enough, the chicken could eventually choke to death.

Hair worms: Super thin and only about an inch long, these worms can live in various parts of the body (usually the small intestine & crop) and are usually not visible in droppings.  Because you can’t see the worms, the only reliable way to diagnose hair worms is to have a fecal sample done.  Symptoms includes green diarrhea, anemia, weight loss.  With large infestations the chicken can eventually die.

Tapeworm: Fairly common in chickens, tapeworms can grow up to several inches long, they attach themselves to the intestines and once they set up shop in there, they can be difficult to get rid of.  A few times a day, the tapeworm will shed some of it’s segments and they will be visible in the chicken’s dropping (they will look like small bits of rice).  They are not the same type of tapeworms that can infest humans or your dog, so they are not transmittable to you.  They are rarely fatal to the bird, but can interfere with your chicken getting enough nutrients and can cause weight loss & lack of energy.

How do chickens get worms?

There are a couple ways chickens can get worms.  One way is for them to eat the droppings of another infected chicken or wild bird.  They can also get worms from eating “host” animals – often earthworms, slugs, flies, grasshoppers, snails or beetles.

How can I prevent worms?

Preventing worms is way easier than treating them.  Personally, I don’t routinely worm my flock for a few reasons.  There are no “all purpose” wormers available for chickens, so flock owners who routinely worm as a preventative measure administer 2 or 3 different medicines to their flock on a rotating basis trying to keep all types of worms at bay.  I worry what that high of a medicine load does to their little bodies.  It is a fact of life that most chickens have some worms; they forage on the ground, they eat bugs, and they pick at and step in other chicken’s droppings.  Their bodies are able to handle a certain small level of worms naturally without any harm to the chicken’s health, to their eggs or to their meat.   I don’t routinely take medicine when I am not sick, so neither do my chickens.  I also don’t want to contribute to drug resistant worms by worming when my chickens are not sick.  Many vets and flock owners recommend routine worming, and I respect their opinions, but it is not for me.  That doesn’t mean that worm prevention is something I can ignore.  There are plenty of things I can do to help boost my chicken’s natural abilities to control worm populations:

*keep the run & coop clean – the longer fresh droppings are around, the more likely other chickens will pick at them or spread them around.  I use deep litter method in the coop (click here to read more about that) and manage it properly to keep droppings from taking over.  In the run, I use sand and we replace it annually.  I also rake out the run on a daily basis.

*keep the run & coop dry – worms love warmth & moisture.  They tend to be the biggest problem in spring & fall.  They like temperatures between 50-90 degrees F, and moist muddy areas.  Allow sunlight in your run, not only to help dry things out, but also because direct UV light can kill worm eggs.  If you have parts of your run that tend to stay wet, take measures to provide better drainage.  If you keep messy, wet ducks with your chickens plan ahead for drainage issues from pools and water dishes.

*rotate pastures – this can be really difficult for backyard chicken keepers, but if at all possible, rotate the area your chickens live on or free range in on a year to year basis.  Worm eggs can live in the soil for up to a year (and sometimes even longer!), so if you have the space to do this you can minimize re-infestations.  If you have limited space, replace the material in the run and in the coop once or twice a year.  Keep your grass mowed in areas that your chickens hang out, so UV rays can penetrate down to the ground, killing eggs

*don’t let chicken math get the best of you – I know, they are so cute and you want to collect them all, but if you have too many chickens on too little land, the chances of worm overload get much higher.  Most sources quote 10 square feet outside space per bird, but I really think 20 square feet per bird is more reasonable.

*keep feeders & waterers clean – at least once a week, scrub them clean and try not to scatter feed on the ground (you don’t want to encourage them to eat off the ground they are pooping on).

*apple cider vinegar – mixed in their water (1 tablespoon per gallon of water) can help maintain an acidic environment in the chicken’s digestive tract which worms do not like

*vitamins & probiotics – boosting your chicken’s immune system will help them naturally fight worm infestations

*crushed garlic – garlic is high in sulfur which is toxic to many internal and external parasites that can bother your chickens.  Add a few cloves of crushed garlic to their feed or water on a weekly basis.  Be careful not to overdo it with the garlic as too much can start to taint the taste of their eggs.

*pumpkin seeds & yogurt – a couple times a year, ground up pumpkin seeds and mix it into their feed.  Pumpkin (and other squash) seeds are coated with cucurbitacin, which is thought to paralyze intestinal worms.  Follow that up with some plain yogurt which can help flush out the paralyzed worms.

What if I already have an infestation?

I already mentioned that I don’t like giving my chickens medicine when they aren’t sick.  That does not mean when parasites start to effect their health I won’t step in.  The preventative measures I mentioned above are great for helping keep your flock healthy with a low, normal, manageable worm level.  I have been lucky enough to have never had internal parasite issues with my flock yet, but I have used Ivomec Eprinex with success in treating external parasites (mites).  If you notice loose droppings or dirty bum feathers, birds that are loosing weight despite eating, have pale combs and no energy it might be time to take action.  If one bird has worms, it is a good idea to worm the whole flock because they are all likely to be out of balance.  Because there is no one medicine that will kill all worms, you have to identify the type of worm you are dealing with.  Hopefully, you can do this by observing symptoms or by physically seeing the worms in the chicken’s droppings.  If not, you will need to have a fecal sample test run by your vet, or you can try a home test kit.  Your vet can recommend some medications based on the parasite you are dealing with, but some common ones (that can usually be found at your feed store) include:

Wazine 17% – for round worms, 1 oz per 1 gallon of water,  repeat treatment once a week for three weeks.  Do not eat eggs or meat from these chickens for two weeks after the final treatment.  This is the only wormer that I know of that is FDA approved for use in poultry, the others are “off label” so use at your own risk.

Safeguard 10% – for round worms, hair worms, cecal worms & gape worms – a goat dewormer, you can give a small, pea sized amount to each bird.  Repeat treatment in 10 days.  Do not eat eggs or meat from these chickens for two weeks after final treatment

Ivomec Eprinex – for round worms, hair worms, gape worms & external parasites like mites & lice.  An external application (like Frontline on your dog) this is made for cattle.  For chickens apply 0.5 cc dropper for a standard size chicken (0.25 cc for bantams) on the back of the neck between the shoulder blades.  Repeat treatment in two weeks.  No withdrawal is specified for cattle, but to be safe I would toss the eggs for at least a week, if not two

Drontal – for tapeworms.  A cat dewormer, a small, pea sized amount is enough for each bird if you can find it in a paste version.  It also comes in pill form, follow weight dosing information on the bottle.  There are no medicines that will “kill” a tapeworm, but this medication will paralyze the worm, forcing it to release it’s grip on the intestine so it can be flushed from the system.  Repeat the treatment in one week and do not eat the eggs or meat for two weeks.



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2 comments

  1. Vickie Westcamp says:

    Okay. Now I have the heebie-jeebies! Haha. I plan to get my girls this spring, when my husband finally builds my coop. Knowing about these worms has been very helpful. But worms in eggs? Now, that’s just not right! 😉

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