Sheep Management: The Deadly Barber Pole Worm

When I sell breeding livestock – ewe and ram lambs alike – I now add the following sentence to the sale’s agreement: Seller advises STRONGLY against using Ivomec as a dewormer and recommends Cydectin or Prohibit against barber pole worms and Valbazen against tapeworms.

On occasion I receive a phone call, an e-mail, or a Facebook message that a ram lamb or a ewe lamb that I sold has died “all in a sudden”. In all likelihood, the owner missed in many cases all the signs of a heavy infestations with the deadly barber pole worm. Granted, it isn’t easy to spot for the inexperienced eye until it is too late.

What is the barber pole worm and why is it so deadly? The scientific name for the barber pole worm is Haemonchus contortus. This particular worm lives in the sheep’s true stomach, the abomasum. It thrives there by the thousands by piercing the stomach and sucking blood. That leads to anemia and often death. Anemia as a sign of an infestation can be detected by looking at the sheep’s lower eyelid which will be white or pale instead of pink or red. Another sign of infestation with this parasite is the so-called bottle jaw, an accumulation of liquid under the sheep’s jaw. However, that does not always occur when a sheep is affected. Scours, which are many times a tell-tale that something is wrong with the animal, are most notably absent. Needless to say, it isn’t all that easy to detect anything when the sheep is infested until it is too late. Hence the remark I hear that the sheep died “all in a sudden.”

Some individual sheep are more resistant than other to this worm. Young sheep or lambs are more susceptible to it than old sheep because resistance or even immunity is often obtained over time. Some breeds of sheep are more resistant than others, most notably sheep of tropical origin. Careful though when you hear the sales talk of some folks who elevate one sheep breed over any other. Their claim that their breed is more parasite resistant may turn out to be wishful thinking at best.

Here are some ideas how to manage this parasite to reduce or even avoid losses. Conventional wisdom used to be that rotational grazing will break the worm life cycle when there are at least three weeks in between grazing any given pasture. Field trials have shown that under favorable weather (favorable for the larvae that is) like moist and warm seasons the infective larvae survives far longer – in some cases months – which makes this practice a matter of the past. Still, rotational grazing can help with managing this parasite for a different reason. Most of the larvae of the worm can be found on the first four inches of any grass blade or any other forage plant. Few larvae climb higher than that. So if residual of at least four inches is left after grazing the intake of infective larvae is limited. Leaving that much residual is desirable for other reasons anyway in a rotational grazing system.

Deworming sheep in the chute with the help of my children.

Deworming sheep in the chute with the help of my children.

There are many dewormers (anthelmintics) on the market that used to be effective against internal parasites. Use and overuse has led to parasite resistance in many flocks against these dewormers. However, it has not done so equally among the available anthelmintics . Here is some noteworthy difference: When a barber pole worm has developed resistance against Ivomec (ivermectin) and it mates with a susceptible worm, all resulting worms are resistant against Ivomec. This is why resistance against this drug builds so quickly. Levamisole under the brand name Prohibit on the other hand is effective much longer. Here is why:  When a barber pole worm has developed resistance against Prohibit and it mates with a susceptible worm, all resulting worms are susceptible again. Cornell University estimated that resistance against this de-wormer takes 20 some years to build. After many years of use, I still use Prohibit quite effectively. (Cydectin is another dewormer I still use effectively. While there has been cases of drug resistance documented as well, they don’t seem to be as wide spread. Cydectin has not been on the market that long yet and it also doesn’t seem to be as widely known).

If you are a small flock owner and you seek advice from a veterinarian about what dewormer to use, chances are your vet will recommend Ivomec. While my experience is anecdotal I know that in ALL cases where my advice was sought after a sheep had died the vet had indeed recommended Ivomec or the flock owner had used it on his or her own account. The question occurs why Ivomec is still recommended so often. I contribute this to two facts: First, veterinarians are often amazingly uneducated when it comes to internal parasites in sheep. Secondly, Ivomec is readily available as a drench or as an injection. On the other hand, Prohibit is far more inconvenient to use. The drench does not come as a ready-to-use solution and must be prepared by yourself by mixing the packaged powder with water. It is not available for just a few animals – depending on the weight the package is good for dozens or hundreds of sheep. (The bolus that used to be the convenient choice for flock owners with just a few sheep is no longer available). Lastly, once mixed with water it expires after three months of storage unlike Ivomec, which can be stored for a much longer time.

When it comes to deworming, a regular deworming schedule should be avoided. Unfortunately, some vets still do recommend exactly that. While I still routinely deworm lambs at the age of about six to eight weeks and my ewes around lambing when the immunity against worms is most compromised, I don’t have much of a deworming schedule beyond that. I do have a deworming plan, though. In a dry year, I can postpone deworming again until the lambs have almost reached market weight. In a wet year I need to deworm earlier. Most times I don’t deworm all of the sheep. I only deworm those that need it, especially young sheep with lambs and lambs themselves. Older sheep and heavy lambs often don’t get dewormed. Some of you may say that not deworming some sheep will lead to immediate infection of the pasture with worm eggs. Exactly. Just that these worms are likely to be susceptible to the dewormer I am using. This means my dewormer will remain effective longer.

Sheep that continuously show sign of infestation right after being dewormed get a different treatment. They end up as either sausage, stew meat, or burgers. The scientific term for it is: selecting for parasite resistance. And yes, selecting for parasite resistance as a management tool can be and should be used in any given flock of any given breed on any given farm. No matter how nice the ewe is otherwise, culling her is the best course of action in the long run.

How do I determine which are the ones that need to be dewormed? 30 years of experience tell me which ones to deworm and which I won’t. I reckon my experience won’t do you, the reader, any good. So here is an alternative: There is a FAMACHA© eye color chart available which was developed by South African researchers. The chart tells you what the desirable eye lid color is and what color suggests anemia. I am often asked if I use it and the answer is that, in a technical sense, I don’t. I find it impractical when you have several hundred sheep. It is more practical if you have a few dozen sheep or less. On the other hand, I do indeed check the occasional eye lid if I suspect infestation and I need verification.

I do want to give some words of caution here: I don’t consider this chart as bullet-prove science like the law of gravity. I have seen sheep that clearly were infested by the barber pole worm that still had a somewhat healthy eye-lid color. Likewise, I have people telling me that they used this chart and thought the sheep was healthy and then it wasn’t and died. I suspect there are also individual differences in animals. You can be certain, however, when you suspect the barber pole worm and the eye lid color is pale or even white that it indeed is that parasite.

Last but not least, here is the greater picture in all of this. Dealing with the barber pole worm is a question of managing it and living with it in your flock with little or without economic losses. There is no silver bullet that can do it all. You want to use all tools in the box to do so. Trying to eliminate this parasite is like wanting your home never getting dusty in any way or your boots never getting dirty when you go outside. It is not going to happen.

Ulf Kintzel 

Ulf owns and operates White Clover Sheep Farm and breeds and raises grass-fed White Dorper sheep without any grain feeding and offers breeding stock suitable for grazing. He is a native of Germany and lives in the US since 1995. He farms in the Finger Lakes area in upstate New York. His website address is He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone during “calling hour” indicated on the answering machine at 585-554-3313.


  1. Avatar of Carlene Carlene on May 24, 2018 at 3:28 pm

    Does garlic in sheep feed deter the barberpole worm?

    • klr235 on May 31, 2018 at 2:47 pm

      Hi Carlene.
      In response to both of your questions, I would recommend reaching out to the author of this article. Ulf can be reached at

  2. Avatar of Carlene Carlene on May 24, 2018 at 3:30 pm

    Young sheep do not yet produce Vitamin C with their bodies. Do nursing lambs get Vitamin C from their ewe’s milk?

  3. Avatar of Karel Baresh Karel Baresh on December 1, 2018 at 5:47 pm

    Our flock pastures in semi-tropical mountains of Veracruz. Barber Pole worm is a real problem here, usually at the beginning and the end of the monsoon season. When we detect “bottle jaw” we do the following treatment with great success: day 1: ivermectin 1ml + 10ml apple cider vinegar in 10ml of water. The vinegar treatment is given 3x day for the first 2 days. The third day we administer ivermectin again, followed by vinegar treatment 2x day for 5 days. The following days, till 14 days vinegar 1x day at night. On day 10 last treatment with ivermectin. I realize that there is some concern about the worm’s resistance to ivermectin, but since we do this treatment on “as needed” basis, it may be used in a particular sheep only once or twice during her lifetime. For us, the above treatment is highly successful and over the years we have saved many sheep. K.

    • Avatar of Saundra Baxter Saundra Baxter on August 17, 2023 at 11:14 pm

      Thanks for the good advice. We found two cases of bottle jaw this afternoon and are so happy to have found your post. The lambs have had their first dose.

      • Avatar of Rodney Walker Rodney Walker on September 26, 2023 at 5:01 am

        Hi Saundra
        Just hoping for an update on how your treatment for Barber pole worms is progressing? I too have found a few cases of bottle jaw and am about to treat them using Karel Baresh’s method. It is a lot of work, so was hoping you had great success.

        • Avatar of Tina Tina on December 17, 2023 at 10:54 am

          Hello my name is Tina. I’m in Texas, USA. I currently have a lamb with bottle jaw. She’s still trying to keep up with others lambs. She’s very weak but eating, drinking, pooping (diarrhea). She does have worms in her feces. I’m trying to take care of this sheep thar we’re for all practical purposes been abandoned & starving. 8 Barbado Ewes all pregnant. 3 kids. 6 more 3 ram lambs 3 lambs. I have managed to get all but 2 of Ewes back healthy & producing milk now. All are due in Jan. Baby lamb with bottle jaw is only one with barber pole worm. I don’t know what breed she is. She appears to be crossed with wool sheep. Drenches are so confusing.
          Finally my question is:
          I have picked up oral ivermectin 0.08% & nutri-drench. I originally picked up DuraFend Safeguard 0.5% medicated feed before her bottle jaw that appeared suddenly. I also have 12% sweet grain, whole loose corn. I’ve heard & read to use both drenches, grain or oats only to see somewhere else only do ivermectin. I truly have no ideal what to do. I also have good alfalfa hay. I do not have drench gun. Syringes only. I’m told Syringes are very bad to use but so is a gun if your not experienced. No way to do fecal count at all. Not sure I can even get her true weight. Since she’s so weak I’m pretty sure I can. Lucy has pot belly. She’s fighting so hard to live I truly hope I can help her succeed. I’m sorry my questions are all over the map so to speak. I’m just scrambling. Definitely not prepared for any of this part. Basic care sure no problem. Any help or advice will greatly be appreciated. In advance thank you for any replies.
          So here I have all this stuf & don’t know what to do with it. I don’t even know if I have what’s best for Lucy (lamb). I do not own these sheep but can’t stand by for this baby to die. Any advice

  4. Avatar of Karel Baresh Karel Baresh on December 1, 2018 at 5:52 pm

    Sorry, I forgot to add an important note: the ivermectin is injected subcutaneously, while the vinegar solution is given orally.

  5. Avatar of Alsop.Chapman Alsop.Chapman on May 20, 2020 at 11:46 pm

    Don’t ask what others have done for you, but ask what you have done for others

  6. Avatar of David David on December 8, 2021 at 10:31 am

    Hi Alf. Appreciate your article. I’ve learned that managing this parasite is more an art than a science! Greetings from a Dorper farmer in South Africa.

    • Avatar of Peter Peter on October 17, 2022 at 4:26 am

      Hi David. We have dorpers in North Queensland, Australia.
      We have lost several sheep over several years to barbers pole. One of the girls has it now and we are trying the solution that Ulf mentioned.
      Any other suggestions would be appreciated.

  7. Avatar of Trish Trish on November 19, 2022 at 7:01 pm

    Hi I live in Gympie, Queensland.
    We have sheep here on 5 acres we have been here for 3 years and have lost a few to barbers pole worm.
    Until I found Q drench I find it to be the best wormer for my sheep.

  8. Avatar of Michaell S. Michaell S. on December 24, 2023 at 5:04 pm

    In about 2022, I began to notice that my sheep were not being served well with Ivermectin and were dying of Barber Pole infestation. I switched to prohibit and have done a lot better. Resistance builds in parasites and you have to change. Prohibit still works but I would love to switch to Cydectin (but it is very expensive in the U.S. ) .

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