What are Gapeworms?

The gapeworm causes respiratory breathing problems for your bird by infesting the tracheal wall (windpipe) causing inflammation. In advanced stages, it may cause the demise of your bird through lack of oxygen. Magpies and poultry are also affected by the gapeworm. It is rare that inside birds get infected as their environment is different to the outdoor bird. The eggs of the gapeworm are picked up by birds from the soil or other bird droppings while your bird is searching around for food.

Gapeworm is a parasite that affects mostly finches and canaries and is common in outside aviaries. It affects the respiratory tract of your bird.

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Symptoms of Gapeworms in Birds

  • This condition can kill your pet bird if not treated and if the infestation is heavy – usually because they cannot breathe and lack oxygen
  • You may notice your bird opening his beak wider gasping for air, trying to get more oxygen
  • Sudden loss of condition and change in behaviour as the gapeworm moves internally
  • Shaking of the head as your bird tries to free the airway
  • Lack of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy 
  • Coughing and a gurgling sound when breathing 
  • Sneezing and heavy breathing 
  • Confusion and bewilderment 
  • Dullness to the eyes 

Types 

Although there are plenty of variety of worms, there is only one type of gapeworm

  • A heavy infestation of gapeworm can cause serious problems for your bird
  • If you notice your bird having problem breathing, get advice from your veterinarian who will advise of an effective worming treatment 
  • They are red in colour and are found in the windpipe or trachea of your bird
  • Once inside your bird, the developed adult attaches to the female 
  • The male gapeworm is smaller than the female 
  • They form a ‘Y’ shaped co-joined worm

Causes of Gapeworms in Birds

  • Eggs from the gapeworm are picked up from the ground
  • The eggs hatch into larvae of the gapeworm in the intestine
  • From there they move up into the bronchi and into the lungs 
  • Developing from here, they moult and travel to the trachea
  • Male and female join into a ‘Y’ shape and lay eggs
  • The eggs are coughed up onto the ground and the cycle begins again

Diagnosis of Gapeworms in Birds

Usually your bird’s behaviour will be the strong signal for action. If they are having a problem breathing, shaking their heads and gasping for air, then you can be sure gapeworms are the reason. Usually a sample of your bird’s feces is taken to the veterinarian who will view them under a high-power microscope where the eggs are clearly visible (they get passed through your bird’s body and excreted in the droppings). The veterinarian can do a worm count and from the results will be able to tell the extent of the infestation and confirm that it is gapeworm. During his examination of your bird, he may even be able to see the gapeworm inside the throat of your feathered friend.

From this examination and diagnosis, he will be able to recommend a worming treatment for your bird. For poultry who graze the land, he will recommend rotating the grazing paddocks and treating the paddocks to get rid of the gapeworm. Gapeworms have a defined life cycle and breaking that cycle is the most important thing after curing your bird. While it is almost impossible to prevent reinfestation, with careful management and treatment it can be kept to a minimum.

Treatment of Gapeworms in Birds

For a pet bird your veterinarian may suggest supplemental oxygen as treatment. If it is for a flock of chickens that may not be a viable option and he may rely on worm treatment products to cure the flock. The dosage usually depends on the state of the infestation, and the way that is determined is by your veterinarian carrying out an egg count in a pre-determined sample of the bird’s feces. Ivermectin (Ivomec) and moxidectin (Cydectin) are used to treat gapeworm.

If your birds have a heavy worm infestation, a strong dose can cause problems whereby if all the worms are killed at once, blockages in your bird’s system may occur. It is advisable to treat very sick birds with only half the usual dose of medication, then allow a few days and after your bird’s condition improves, proceed to give the full dosage. Your veterinarian will be able to advise on the correct amount to administer.

Recovery of Gapeworms in Birds

There is no easy way around the worm issue, disinfectants do not kill worm eggs contrary to belief. To try and prevent further infection, you need to know and understand the life cycle of gapeworms. Birds will always poke around in the ground, searching for bugs or seeds. Care should be taken to clean the environment thoroughly, and replace nesting material at the same time you implement your worming program. Compost heaps attract birds so get rid of any piles and clean the area up. Repeated worming treatments should be carried out regularly in three week intervals to break the life cycle of the gapeworm. Grazing areas for chickens should be rotated to keep the stock healthy.