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Before I decribe the process of sustainably managing parasites in goats, let’s define “sustainable” in this context. The term “sustainable” is often used in agriculture as a synonym for organic. That’s not the case here. Rather, I literally mean a program that can be sustained. You see, a huge problem in parasite management is that the products we use to control parasites—worms, especially—often become ineffective over time largely because of misuse and overuse. A sustainable program, for our purposes, is defined as finding a balance of actively working to keep a herd healthy, while also avoiding practices that promote resistance to chemical wormers. Resistance is built every single time we treat an animal for parasites. As such, knowing when to treat and when not to is key to finding a healthy balance. The absolute worst thing you can do is to set and adhere to a regular schedule of worming your goats.
We diagnose exactly how “wormy” the animals in our herd are (and therefore whether treatment is recommended) by using three tools: something called FAMACHA scoring, fecal flotations/eggs counts, and body condition scoring. Used alone, any one of these markers is inadequate for gauging parasites. Used together, however, they provide the best picture of what you are dealing with and how/whether to treat it.
Here is a short rundown of each of those tools.
You might have heard of FAMACHA. Using it, you check the color of the eyelids of a goat to see whether it is experiencing anemia (low red blood cell count) because of high parasite activity. Specifically this process seeks to determine the load of haemonchus or “barber pole worm,” which is the most silently destructive of parasites that affect goats. You might even check your goats’ eyes pretty regularly. While we do this, too, we should emphasize that this alone is not FAMACHA.
FAMACHA is a very specific system of checking that is calibrated to a printed card and that must be used exactly as explained in a certified training to be wholly effective. That said, you can glean some idea of your animals’ parasite load by checking informally—but it is not scientific and therefore can easily result in improper or unwarranted dosing, which contributes to resistance. If you have only a couple of goats, this informal method for gauging the presence of parasites is still a million times better than not doing it at all. But as your herd grows, so does the need to be more exact. We recommend that you find and take a class and obtain an official FAMACHA card to correctly use this valuable tool. These classes are often offered through local extension offices and agricultural universities.
Fecal floats and egg counts are used to learn the activity level of the parasites your goats carry, as well as the general worm burden. All goats have worms. The object is not to get your animals worm free, but rather to keep numbers at a level that is not detrimental to your goats’ health. Fecal egg counts not only shows you a rough idea of worm burden, but—done regularly—reveals patterns, including seasonal effects on infection levels.
It is important that fecal egg counts be done correctly and with proper equipment. Otherwise they’re of little value. They should always be done with a chambered McMasters slide, using the accompanying techniques and instructions. These slides and techniques have proven to be the most accurate. I wrote a brief why-and-how lesson on fecal egg counting in 2016.
In the most general terms, you should evaluate an animal’s appearance to see if it “looks wormy.” Weight loss, rough coats, scours, bottle jaw, anorexia (being off feed), anemia and depression can all signify parasite infection. Barber pole worm infections do not generally show in body condition other than anemia and bottle jaw, which is why the first two tools we discussed are so important for those worms. But other worm infections leave clear trails via these other symptoms. Know your goats. Know how they usually look so you will know when they show any change. And then perform your fecal egg counts.
To best understand when your goats need worming and when they don’t—and thereby reduce the unnecessary wormings that lead to resistance— we recommend you use all three of these tools. Understand that these tools really do require proper training to be effective. We highly recommend you find and take a class if you can find one. None of these skills are particularly difficult to learn, but none is truly valuable if not used correctly. While this might feel intimidating or overwhelming to new goat owners or folks who have only a couple of goats, the payoff is real. Having a wormer that still works when your goats need it will save their lives.