Could Your Geese Have Gapeworm?

Two of my three Pilgrim geese, all girls, started making a squeaky noise instead of their normal squawking. They are about 6 years old. Any ideas as to why they are doing this? —Bea

by Martok
PHOTO: Dan A. Nachtnebel/Flickr

Pilgrim geese, all girls, started making a squeaky noise instead of their normal squawking. They are about 6 years old. Any ideas as to why they are doing this? —Bea

Bea, I asked Mom if she knew what could be wrong with your geese, but she doesn’t, so she asked a friend who’s kept geese for a long time. Her friend says it sounds as if your geese might have gapeworm. However, this is just our guess—it’s always best to consult your veterinarian or extension specialist so he can examine your animals and verify a diagnosis.

Gapeworms are parasites that live in the airways of birds. They’re bright red and 1/2 to 2 inches long. There are two types: Syngamus trachea is the kind that will affect your farms chickens, guinea fowl, turkeys and pheasants; Cyathostoma bronchialis is found more in waterfowl, wild raptors and some songbirds. They act and look a lot alike, so we’ll refer to them collectively as gapeworms.

Gapeworm infestations block an affected bird’s trachea with worms and mucus that causes it to cough, wheeze and breathe with its mouth open—wouldn’t you if you had something stuck in your throat? This behavior is called gaping, hence the name gapeworm. The bird stretches its neck and gasps, making a hissing sound.

Birds catch gapeworm by accidentally eating worm eggs from found in the ground or on earthworms, ground snails or slugs infested by gapeworm larvae. Once the eggs are in the bird’s system, they hatch and larvae migrate to the bird’s respiratory tract, where they set up house in its trachea and lay eggs. This is when birds start the gaping action begins. Eggs pass through the bird and out in its droppings. Another bird or an earthworm or slug or snail eats the eggs, and the cycle starts over again. Young birds are more susceptible than older ones and are much more likely to die from heavy gapeworm infestations. Older birds can adapt and might show minimal symptoms, especially if they aren’t heavily infested with worms.

A few other diseases, such as pneumonia, also make birds gape, so if you think your geese might have gapeworm, take a fresh sample of their droppings to your veterinarian so he can run a fecal test for worm eggs. Or take the sample to your county cooperative extension agent, who can send it to your state university for evaluation.

Several drugs, including ivermectin and thiabenazole, are used to treat and prevent gapeworms, but it’s important not to treat your birds without a vet’s advice. Treatments that kill the worms in infected birds can result in dead parasites being inhaled, leading to fatal pneumonia.

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It’s hard to prevent gapeworm because free-range birds have constant access to potentially infected earthworms, snails and slugs. The alternative is to raise your birds in sand, gravel or concrete floored pens and keep them away from bare or muddy ground whenever you can.

Waterfowl, chickens, turkeys and other poultry can also harbor roundworms, hairworms, threadworms, cecal worms, tapeworms and more. Discuss these pests with your vet or extension agent. They can tell you what steps to take to solve your present dilemma and to help keep your girls in the pink.

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