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Chapter 31 - Heartworm of Swans and Geese

Authors: Rebecca A. Cole.

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Filarial heartworm, Sarconema, Sarconema eurycerca


Heartworm in swans and geese is caused by a filarial nematode or a roundworm of the superfamily Filarioidea which is transmitted to the bird by a biting louse. The nematode and the louse both are parasites. Sarconema eurycerca is the only one of several species of microfilaria or the first stage juvenile of the parasite found in the circulating blood of waterfowl that is known to be pathogenic or cause clinical disease.

Figure 31.1
Click Illustration for full-page viewIndirect life cycle of Sarconema eurycerca.

Life cycle

Sarconema eurycerca has an indirect life cycle (Fig. 31.1) that requires the parasite larvae to develop in an intermediate host before they can become infective for and be transmitted to a definitive host, where they mature and reproduce. Female adult heartworms release microfilariae into the bloodstream of the definitive host bird. The microfilariae infect a biting louse, Trinoton anserinum, that subsequently feeds upon the bird. The larvae go through three stages of development within the louse, and the third stage is infectious to birds. A new host bird becomes infected when the louse bites it to feed on its blood and the third-stage larvae move into the bird’s bloodstream. The larvae migrate through the bloodstream to the myocardium, which is the middle and thickest layer of the heart wall composed of cardiac muscle. They are nourished by and develop to sexual maturity within the myocardium. The cycle continues as this next generation of mature heartworms release microfilariae into the bloodstream.

Infection with the parasite is not synonymous with disease; that is, the parasite may infect and develop within the bird but not debilitate it.

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Species Affected

Sarconema eurycerca was first identified from a tundra swan (whistling swan) in the late 1930s. It has since been reported from trumpeter, Bewick’s, and mute swans and, from Canada, snow, white-fronted, and bean geese. Varying percentages of swans (4–20 percent) have been found to be infected on the basis of blood smears that were taken from apparently healthy birds during field surveys. Canadian investigators have reported a prevalence of approximately 10 percent of snow geese that were examined at necropsy and which had died from other causes. This parasite has not received sufficient study for its full host range, its relative frequency of occurrence in different species, or its significance as a mortality factor for wild birds to be determined.

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Heartworm is found throughout the range of its swan and goose hosts.


It is suspected that while swans and geese are on the breeding grounds, louse infestation and colonization on birds is prevalent. Therefore, the possibility of infection by heartworm is highest while birds are on the breeding grounds.

Field Signs

Field signs are not always present in infected birds, and infection cannot be determined by the presence of clinical signs alone. Chronic types of debilitating diseases, such as lead poisoning, may exacerbate louse infestation because birds become lethargic and do not preen. No specific field sign is diagnostic for infection.

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Gross Lesions

The severity of infection dictates the lesions that are seen at necropsy. Birds may be emaciated or in comparably good flesh. The heart may be enlarged and have pale foci or spots within the myocardium. The thin, long thread-like worms may be visible under the surface layer or epicardium of the heart or the worms may be embedded within the deeper muscle tissue of the myocardium (Fig. 31.2).

Figure 31.2
Click Photo for full-page viewHeartworms (arrows) on the inner surface of the heart of a tundra swan.

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A diagnosis of heartworm as the cause of death must be supported by pathologic lesions seen during examination of the heart tissues with a microscope and consideration of other causes. Therefore, whole carcasses should be submitted for diagnostic assessments. If the transit time is short enough to avoid significant decomposition of the carcass and if the carcass can be kept chilled during transit, then chilled whole carcasses should be submitted to qualified disease diagnostic laboratories. If those conditions cannot be met, then carcasses should be submitted frozen.


Control of heartworm is not practical for free-ranging birds. Decreasing the opportunity for heavy infestation of the louse intermediate host will result in reduced opportunity for heartworm infection.

Human Health Considerations

Sarconema eurycerca has not been reported to infect humans.

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Supplementary Reading

  • Cohen, M., Greenwood, T., and Fowler, J.A., 1991, The louse
    Trinoton anserinum (Amblycerca: Pthiraptera), an intermediate
    host of Sarconema eurycerca (Filarioidea: Nematoda), a
    heartworm of swans: Medical and Veterinary Entomology, v. 5,
    p. 101–110.
  • Scheller, E.L., Sladen, W.L., and Trpis, M., 1976, A Mallophaga,
    Trinoton anserium, as a cyclodevelopmental vector for a
    heartworm parasite of waterfowl: Science, v. 194, p. 739–740.
  • Seegar, W.S., 1979, Prevalence of heartworm, Sarconema
    Wehr, 1939 (Nematoda), in whistling swan, Cygnus
    columbianus columbianus:
    Canadian Journal of Zoology, v. 57,
    p. 1,500–1,502.

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