American Pigeon Fanciers Council - Oklahoma City
August 2001

A PROGRAM FOR PIGEON HEALTH
Dr. Paul G. Miller PhD, DVM
Pennsylvania Veterinary Laboratory
August 19, 2001

Consider all the disease hazards your birds are exposed to during a season of racing, flying or showing.  Many of these are beyond your control.  Often you are not even aware that your bird has been exposed to some disease or hazard.

Some of the diseases your bird could be inadvertently exposed to would include:

Infectious Disease:
Paramyxovirus/Newcastle,
Adenovirus, Poxvirus,
Herpes virus, Circovirus,
Other respiratory viruses,
Paratyphoid (=Salmonella)

Parasites:
Trichomonas (=Canker),
Coccidia,
Tetrameres, Capillaria, Ascarids, etc.,
Hemoproteus (=Malaria),
Lice, Flies and Mites.
Also Toxic diseases and Predators.

In addition to this, please observe that many disease prevention programs are based on maintaining a ‘closed’ system in which the bird is prevented from exposure to disease.  In contrast to this, notice that most pigeons are kept in ‘open’ systems in which birds are not tightly controlled, and they are inadvertently exposed to many disease hazards.

For example: 

Flying birds are often beyond our control and care.  Occasionally they mix with feral birds or other domestic flocks.  Also, while they are out, what they eat or drink and where they roost is beyond our control.

During many pigeon competitive events, birds from many sources are confined together, and purposely mixed.

Since disease, however subtle, can severely degrade performance, it is essential to make disease prevention and control an integral part of your loft management program.

So, how do you do this ???

Three aspects of health management I would like to discuss here are Prevention, Monitoring and, when necessary, Diagnosis and Treatment.

Prevention.

Vaccination: the exposure of the bird to a mild or killed form of the disease causing organism (pathogen) so as to stimulate an immune response and condition the bird to be resistant (=immune) to the virulent form of the disease.  Most pigeon vaccines are killed vaccines; some pigeon pox vaccines are attenuated live viruses.


Vaccinate your birds to protect against:

Paramyxovirus: Young birds before racing season; old birds before breeding.
Vaccines: Inacti/Vac PMV1 (Maine Biological=Lohman Animal Health); Columbovac (Solvay - Europe).

Do NOT use LaSota strain chicken vaccine.
Pox: If needed, annually; Acti/Vac PP (Maine Biological=Lohman A. H.)
Paratyphoid: Salbac from Biomune; use as necessary depending on exposure.

In some cases, you may need to have an autogenous vaccine made by a vet for a specific problem in your loft: E. coli, Salmonella, Pasturella, etc.

Probiotics: Bacteria which are ‘friendly’ to the bird, and crowd out pathogenic types.  Usually used in the digestive system. Several brands: Benebac, Primilac, others.  Most probiotics are species specific (e.g. chicken, turkey, etc).  Check the species.

Exposure: Mix your young birds with other fliers’ birds prior to races or ship a few training flights on the club truck to expose birds to possible pathogens and acquaint them with racing procedures.  Get past some of the common baby diseases before racing season starts.

Loft Hygiene: very important; often overlooked.
Club Hygiene: Show coops; shipping crates, trucks, trailers.
Flying Management: Try to minimize the amount of time the bird is actually on the road, and minimize the necessity of the bird having to come down away from the loft.
Racing: Be aware of the weather along the entire race course, and release only in good flying weather.

Loft Flying: Be sure birds are hungry enough to control; beware of overfly situations: later in day, windy, clouds/fog, another flock passing through, etc.

Monitor.

Look for the subtle signs of disease.  This has become a standard practice in many areas of animal husbandry.  Disease can drastically degrade performance, yet it is often very subtle, such as subclinical infections, prepatent parasite infestations, etc.  

In many situations, the most obvious thing you see first is bad performance.  Overt, explicit, fulminating disease is not expressed until much later, when the disease process is quite advanced (e.g. parasite infestations, et al).


What do you monitor ????
First, the obvious: feed and water consumption.  Plumage.  Weight and body condition.  Exercise performance: not just how long or how far do they fly, but how do they look and act during and after flying ???  Reproductive efficiency.  Droppings; look for diarrhea, polyuria, whole feed passage, etc.


Throat swabs.  On a direct wet mount of a throat swab, look for flagellates (sub clinical canker).  A cloacal wet mount is also worthwhile (for cloacal canker).


Gram Stains.  Swab throat, crop, choanal slit and cloaca and streak out onto glass slides for Gram staining.  There should be predominantly Gram Positive organisms.  Too many Gram Negatives indicate a poor intestinal flora; in this case, have a culture done to identify the bacteria, and treat as necessary.


Fecal Float for parasites.  Many types of worms (Nematodes), coccidia, some flagellates and lice, mite and fly parts can be picked up on a float.  For worms, detection depends on egg production by the parasite; immature or unproductive worms can be troublesome, and yet not be detected on a float.  So floats can be quite helpful, but are not perfect.

Blood tests.

Blood Films.  These are made on a glass slide with a drop of blood from the wing, and then are stained to show the blood cells better.  These are examined for blood parasites (Malaria, Leucocytozoan, etc) and also to look at the type and number of white blood cells in the immune system.


Blood Chemistry and Enzymes.  Depending on the lab, between 12 and 25 different blood chemistry components and enzymes are measured numerically, and compared to the ‘normal’ range.  This enables diagnosis of some nutritional imbalances/deficiencies, some toxins and some metabolic disorders such as liver, kidney, endocrine and muscle dysfunctions.  Draw about one milliliter from the wing vein or the jugular.  Check with your lab before collecting blood to get their submission protocol.

Diagnosis and Treatment.
Necropsy.  Often the last resort.  The bird is killed and opened up for direct evaluation of its internal condition, and very elaborate further testing; many diagnostic modalities are available and many tests can be run in far more elaborate detail from necropsy than on the live bird.  Fresh dead birds can be used in some situations.

Treatment vs Necropsy: When do you decide to do a necropsy ???

There is no easy answer to this question; discuss this with your vet or the necropsy lab.

Here are a few considerations.
There is no such thing as a ‘mystery death’; birds as robust and hardy as pigeons do not ‘just die’.  If the cause of death is not obvious, have the bird necropsied.

A reasonably definite diagnosis must be reached fairly early in the treatment process.  Do not just guess at one possibility after another; this ‘shotgun’ approach can do far more harm than good.

Antibiotic treatment can often obscure the underlying bacterial infection, and distort the diagnosis; do any bacterial cultures required for diagnosis before initiating antibiotic treatment.

Call your veterinarian or necropsy lab beforehand to get the appropriate submission protocol and make arrangements; necropsy should be a deliberate, planned part of your management program, not a last minute afterthought.

For further information:
Maine Biological Lab: www.mainbiolab.com; (800)-639-1582.
Lohman Animal Health: www.lahinternational.com ; (770)-532-3621.

 

 

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Contact Paul Walsh at paul@walshloft.com with questions or comments regarding this site.