Dealing with Barber Pole Worms

Reader Contribution by Shelly Devore and Farminence
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What are barber pole worms?

If you have sheep or goats, then you need to be aware of barber pole worms and be prepared to treat them.  Barber pole worms are an internal parasite that can very quickly infect a host and become fatal.

Barber pole worms live in the lining of the stomach in small ruminants such as sheep and goats.  They get their name from the striped appearance on the body that resembles an old-fashioned red and white striped barber’s pole.  These are no pleasant parasites, however.

Barber pole worms use a small tooth to slice open the lining of the stomach.  This causes the animal to bleed, allowing the worm to feed.  Barber pole worms are different than other internal parasites.  They don’t consume the food or the tissues of the animal.  They consume the blood of the animal.  In order to feed, they continually cut the tissues of the stomach to release blood.

Barber pole worms continue the blood letting and feeding until they are either eradicated or they kill the host.

Detecting barber pole worm infestations

Barber pole worms will feed on the blood of the animal so much that they can cause anemia in the animal.  The easiest way to check for barber pole worms is to check the animal periodically for anemia.  Goat producers in South Africa created a simple test that can be done quickly by sheep and goat producers to check animals for anemia and ultimately, barber pole worms.  This simple test is called the FAMACHA test.

The FAMACHA test uses a score card that is numbered 1-5 and has colored swatches.  The card is compared to the inner eyelid of the animal.  Animals that are extremely anemic will have pale eyelid membranes and will match the lighter colored shades (4 or 5) on the FAMACHA card.  Animals that are not anemic will have dark pink or red eyelid membranes and will score low (1 or 2) on the FAMACHA scorecard. 

Producers should periodically test their sheep or goat herd using the FAMACHA test.  Of course, there are many reasons that an animal could be anemic.  However, the most common cause of anemia in sheep or goats is due to the barber pole worm. 

Animals that are a 4 or 5 on the FAMACHA scorecard should be de-wormed immediately as the barber pole worm can quickly kill an animal.  Animals that score low on the FAMACHA scorecard, 1 or 2, should not be wormed.  Over-worming animals when they don’t have parasite overloads can lead to parasites that are immune to wormers and therefore untreatable with normal medication.  It’s best to use wormer only when absolutely necessary. I cover more on FAMACHA scoring on my site, Farminence.

Preventing barber pole worms

There are a few ways that producers can reduce barber pole worms on their farm.  When new animals are purchased and brought onto the farm, make sure to test them using the FAMACHA test.  If they show signs of worms or anemia, treat them before adding them to your herd. 

Barber pole worms are transmitted through the feces.  The worms lay eggs into the digestive tract.  These eggs leave the body through the feces and end up on the grasses in the animal’s pasture.  The eggs hatch and turn into larvae.  They wait on the next host animal to come and eat the grasses that they live on.  Once they are consumed, the cycle starts over.

Barber pole worms prefer to live in the grass that is closest to the ground where it is moist.  When grasses are eaten down to the ground, animals are more likely to consume the worm larvae.  When grasses are longer, the animals are less likely to consume the part of the grass where the worms are.  The larvae can’t survive forever and will die without a host, so keeping the animals on taller grasses will help to prevent barber pole worm problems.

Producers can also co-graze different species.  Barber pole worms survive best in small ruminants.  They don’t have as good of a survival rate in cattle or horses.  These larger livestock will often ingest the barber pole worms, but since the worms can’t survive in the larger animals, they die.  Think of it as the different species worming each other.  Animals that are grazed with other species have lower barber pole worm problems.

The best thing producers can do is watch the animals.  Barber pole worms won’t cause symptoms most of the time, other than anemia.  It’s best to check the animals occasionally, especially during the summer grazing months.  Consult your veterinarian to come up with a plan to make sure that your herd is safe from barber pole worms.

Shelby DeVore is an agricultural enthusiast that enjoys writing about gardening, raising livestock and simple living. You can read her most recent posts on or follow Farminence on Pinterest and Twitter. Read all of Shelby’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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