American Pigeon Fanciers Council - Oklahoma City
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:
Herpes virus, Circovirus,
Other respiratory viruses,
Tetrameres, Capillaria, Ascarids, etc.,
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.
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
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.
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:
birds before racing season; old birds before breeding.
Vaccines: Inacti/Vac PMV1 (Maine Biological=Lohman Animal Health); Columbovac (Solvay
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
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.
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
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,
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
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
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.
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
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;
Lohman Animal Health: www.lahinternational.com
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Pigeon Fanciers INC.
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