Worming birds – both aviary birds and companion pets – is a subject that is hotly discussed in avicultural and pet circles, with almost as many opinions as there are bird keepers. Thoughts seem to range between worming your bird every 6 weeks to never doing it at all. And in certain circumstances, both of those protocols can be correct, but lots of factors need to be considered to determine the right protocol for your bird. So, you should consult with an avian vet to determine the best worming protocol for your bird’s individual circumstances.
Getting worming right can avoid bird suffering and a lot of heartbreak when a loved companion or a valuable breeder is lost to something as simple as worms. You can also save a lot of money by not wasting money on worm medications that are not needed.
So, how do you decide how often to worm your birds, and what to use?
The things you should consider when designing a worming program are based on:
- The climate
- The aviary construction
- The type of birds
- Whether they are pet birds or aviary birds
- The most likely parasites they will be infected with
What has the climate got to do with worming your birds? Simply put, worms (and other intestinal parasites) are spread from bird to bird though the birds’ droppings. Eggs and oocysts (the egg of the coccidia parasite) are shed into the gut and then passed out of the bird. Safely wrapped in the faecal material, these eggs can survive for days to weeks on the floor of the aviary until eaten by a bird or an insect (which is then, in turn, eaten by a bird).
It stands to reason, then, that these eggs will survive longer in a warm, humid environment than a hot (or cold) and dry environment. Birds living in tropical climates are more likely to have intestinal parasites than birds in arid or freezing climates – and will therefore need more frequent worming.
The aviary construction
Aviaries can be either full-flight (extending down to the ground) or suspended (a wire floor above the ground). The floor of a full-flight aviary can be bare dirt, grass, sand, gravel, pavers, or concrete – or a mixture of these.
Aviaries can be fully-roofed (completely covered with a solid roof), open-roofed (wire-only roof) or partially roofed (partly fully-roofed).
Each of these has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Suspended aviaries minimise the contact between the birds and their droppings, and can virtually eliminate parasites as a problem in a collection. However, they can be difficult to clean (you can’t climb into them) and may prevent birds from indulging in normal behaviours needed for their mental wellbeing (such as foraging for food or dustbathing). These disadvantages don’t mean that suspended aviaries are bad – when canopy dwellers (such as Eclectus) are housed in them, and environmental enrichment and foraging opportunities are provided, suspended aviaries can be a sound husbandry tool. Worming may only be required once or twice a year, if at all.
On the other end of the spectrum are dirt floored, full-flight aviaries housing ground feeding parrots such as many Australian parrots. Add in a little bit of summer rain and heat, and you have the ‘perfect storm’ that can lead to heavy losses due to intestinal parasites. Birds in this scenario may require worming every six weeks.
Other flooring will have advantages and disadvantages. Grass floors, usually with other plants in the aviary, look great but will attract insects (which can transmit some parasites when they are eaten by the birds). Sand floors can harbour worm eggs but have the advantage of been easily turned over with a rake, reducing direct contact between the birds and parasite eggs.
Concrete floors offer the advantage of been easily cleaned, and birds housed this way may only need worming two or three times each year. Pavers are a near substitute, but the joins between pavers can offer refuge to insects and provide a suitable environment for worm eggs to survive.
Fully-roofed aviaries have two major advantages – they help to keep the aviary floor dry, and they prevent wild birds defecating into the aviary. Partially-roofed or open-roofed aviaries lack these advantages, but they have the advantage of allowing the bird to bathe in the rain and bask in the sun. Again it may come down to a compromise between physical health and psychological wellbeing.
The type of birds
There are basically two types of birds – canopy dwellers, who rarely come to the ground, and ground-feeders who are always down on the ground feeding. The latter, which includes most Australian parrots, are at much greater risk of picking up parasites then canopy dwellers. That is not to say that canopy dwellers have no risk – many will come to the ground occasionally.
So, our ground dwellers include most Australian arid zone birds such as budgies, cockatiels, Princess parrots, and Neophemas. Many of these birds are at a high risk of worm problems, and require more frequent worming. Canopy dwellers are typically tropical and rainforest birds such as Eclectus, macaws, Amazons and conures.
Pet birds or aviary birds?
Many breeders and pet shops recommend a pet bird, housed indoors by itself, be wormed every 3 months for life. This advice stems from the recommended worming programmes for dogs and cats. Certainly, worming a pet bird is a sound practice immediately after purchase but, in a solo bird household, a pet bird is extremely unlikely to come into contact with parasite eggs – and certainly not to the extent of requiring worming every three months!
Aviary birds, on the other hand, are at a much greater risk of exposure to parasites and will require regular (and sometimes frequent) worming.
The most likely parasites
There are three major types of intestinal parasites commonly seen in captive birds: nematodes (roundworm, gizzard worm, etc.); tapeworms; and coccidia (a protozoan, or single-celled parasite). Each will require different strategies, wormers, and frequency of worming.
Nematodes generally have a direct life cycle, i.e. eggs are passed in the bird’s droppings, which are then eaten by another bird which becomes infected. Some, such as gizzard worm, have an indirect life cycle – the eggs are passed in the bird’s droppings, the droppings are eaten by an insect, which is then eaten by another bird. Tapeworms have an indirect lifecycle while coccidia and other protozoa have a direct life cycle.
Parasites with a direct cycle are often easier to control, as their life cycle is confined to the bird’s enclosure. Parasites with an indirect lifecycle are more difficult to control as their lifecycle may not be confined – insects can fly in and out of any aviary, making identifying the source of the parasites more problematic.
Birds can have both types of parasites, often at the same time. The only way to know what parasites a bird has is by microscopic examination of its faeces. This can be done by your avian vet.
So which birds are more likely to have which parasites? The answer is that any bird can have any parasite, but there are some generalisations that can be made. Ground dwelling Australian parrots are more likely to have roundworms; finches frequently have tapeworm; gizzard worm can be found in any bird but is not as common as roundworm and tapeworm. So, when designing a worming program for Australian parrots, your wormer should be highly effective against roundworm, but for finches you may need to concentrate on tapeworm – and not all wormers will do both types of worms.
Putting this all together
You can see that an effective worming program is more than just worming your birds every three months. You should seek advice from an avian veterinarian on the best worming approach for your birds and individual situation. Your vet will consider and discuss the following with you when advising you: what parasites do my birds have (usually discovered by faecal checks); what is the life cycle of these parasites; and how is the climate and aviary design contributing to the parasite problem?
Other important facts to know are: what wormers will treat what parasites; how do you have to administer them; and did they actually work? The efficacy of a worming program is best assessed by regular faecal checks, and then adjusting your program based on the results. But what wormers can you use?
Wormers include the following drugs:
- Ivermectins – ivermectin (e.g. Ivomec®) and moxidectin (e.g. Cydectin®); these are effective against roundworm and gizzard worm only.
- Levamisole (e.g. Avitrol Plus®); effective against roundworm and gizzard worm, but toxic to finches and canaries
- Oxfendazole (e.g. WormOut Gel®); effective against roundworm and gizzard worm.
- Piperazine is an old medication, still sold in many pet shops. It is effective only against roundworm and, even then, not always.
- Praziquantel; effective against tapeworm but extremely bitter to the taste. It is often included with one of the wormers above e.g. Avitrol Plus®; and WormOut Gel®
Drugs effective against coccidia include:
- Amprolium (e.g. Coccivet®)
- Totrazuril (e.g. Baycox®)
Many of these medications can be administered through the birds’ drinking water, but this can be a little ‘hit and miss’ as it requires the birds to drink the medicated water. Desert species (such as Princess parrots) are very prone to worm infections but are also capable of going without water for several days if they don’t like its taste. Worming birds such as this through their drinking water may simply not work and, unless you check the birds’ droppings under a microscope, you may never know if it worked or not – until you start losing birds to worms! So, if you know your Princess parrots have worms, you will want to use one of the medications listed above but administered via a crop needle by your vet.
Worming birds is not as simple as picking up a wormer and putting it in the water every three months. To have effective control you need to know what parasites your bird has, what their life cycle is, how the aviary design and climate affect the worming program, and what parasites are treated with what medication.
Once you have this knowledge, you can design a worming program that is effective i.e. it keeps your birds parasite-free (or at least at a low level) at a reasonable cost. Remember though that you must regularly check it is working – don’t assume that your program is working; have your birds checked regularly by your vet, e.g. twice yearly, to ensure everything is working as planned.
Doneley B (2018) Avian Medicine and Surgery in Practice: Companion and Aviary Birds, 2nd ed. CRC Press