When I was a kid, tapeworms were a funny thing. I remember sitting at a hamburger joint in Michigan and watching my then ten-year-old brother down a double burger and fries in about five minutes. We joked all the way home about his tapeworm, and the fact that it was the only explanation for his being able to rapidly eat so much food and not get sick.
Then I got a flock of sheep, and tapeworms became something more than a joke. Not only did our lambs get them almost every spring, but so did our farm cats and the dogs. It seemed as though every living creature here, except for Rick and me, eventually ended up with tapeworms. I felt as if I was at war with the nasty things — stocking up on pills, liquids, and all manner of treatments for every creature living on the farm. Yuck. They were awful!
After a few years of this war, I came to realize that our lambs ended up with tapeworms not just almost every spring, but actually every spring — usually just at or after weaning in May. Although the small tapeworm segments are not usually easy to see on the back end of a light-colored sheep, the evidence was often far more obvious against dark fleece, making me feel as though I constantly needed to beat back the enemy every spring. Armed with my drench gun and dewormers, we would run all of the lambs through the barn, hitting each one with the appropriate dose for their weight. It was both costly and time consuming, and I felt frustrated by the fact that although our attack seemed to turn back the enemy’s assault, we had the same issue every single year.
Then, a few years ago, I read a study. I no longer remember where the study was done or by whom. What I do remember are the results. According to their work, lambs coming onto pasture for the first time in the spring were easy targets for tapeworms. Although treatment could rid the lambs of the tapeworm infection, the research showed that tapeworms, of themselves, didn’t typically cause unthriftiness or failure to thrive. In the end, the lambs would gain just a bit less during the weeks of the attack, but then they would develop immunity. Eventually, the tapeworms would simply disappear, whether the lambs were treated or not. This got me thinking — as most studies do. I decided to try it right here on our farm, and the next year we stopped treating routinely for tapeworms.
The results were a bit surprising, even after having read the study. Within about a month or so, the tapeworms that were so evident in their droppings during the month of May seemed to disappear, almost overnight. Suddenly, there were no spaghetti strings hanging from behind my lambs, nor did the pellets they dropped have small rice-shaped white segments. No, the tapeworms disappeared almost as if we had dewormed the lambs. Wow!
So the next year we tried the same thing, and we got the same results. And so began our benign neglect of the tapeworms. We no longer routinely deworm simply because we see evidence of tapeworms in our lambs. Now, having said that, I will admit that I do sometimes still treat, but only select lambs. If I see a lamb who doesn’t appear to be gaining as well as the others or a lamb whose droppings are too liquid (evidence of damage to the intestinal lining), I will treat that lamb. I will also treat if I feel the lamb has other issues which would be exacerbated by a heavy parasite load. Yet, in general, we leave them be and wait and watch. Every year, I wait to see whether the lambs will become immune — and so far, they all eventually do.
Although I still view tapeworms as nasty disgusting things, I now realize that our lambs and sheep are pretty tough. Give them enough time in a healthy environment with good feed, and they can often overcome issues on their own. It is a matter of believing in your flock — and watching closely so that if they can’t pull it off, you provide the safety net that can do it for them.