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Site last updated on 3/26/2016

Health is a concept that escapes many fanciers. Good health is not simply the absence of disease.Not being ill is not the same thing as being healthy.

Good health starts with a program of disease prevention and control but goes on to providing optimum nutrition, promoting a strong immune system, maintaining a balanced digestive track, maintaining good physical condition and fitness, minimizing stress,  promoting a strong respiratory system, being free of parasites and even managing the mental health of the birds.         

There are many ways these things can be done. Here are some of our thoughts which form the basis of our health program.

Disease Prevention and Control - In order to contract a disease, the pigeon must come into contact with the disease causing agent. This is going to be either a virus, bacteria, protozoan or a parasite. These agents are delivered by air, water, contact with other birds and contact with other animals (rats, mice, insects, people). So to control disease, you have to control exposure to these agents.

You can’t do much about air.  About the best you can do if you are fortunate enough to have lots of space is to put your breeders in their own loft away from the racing loft.

Water risks can be controlled by treatment. In our case we use well water with 2 ounces of Chlorox and 1 cup of Apple Cider Vinegar per 30 gallons of water.

With respect to birds (particularly other pigeons) and people, it is a little hard due to the very nature of our sport. We race pigeons and so we have to comingle them when we send them off to the races. There is no simple answer, but click here to read about our Bio-Security Program.

Optimum Nutrition - This consists of six components and they must all be provided in either the right amounts or in sufficient quantities so the pigeon can select the right balance. They include protein, carbohydrates and fats (these first three are the principal ingredients of grains), vitamins/co-enzymes and minerals (the latter two being found in grain but not in sufficient quantities) and water.

Proteins are actually polymers (long chains) of amino acids that are stung together. There are 22 different amino acids some of which the pigeon can make on its own and others which must be ingested. Not all protein sources contain the same proportions of these amino acids and none of them are in the precise proportion that the pigeon needs. This is why we provide a variety of grains, and perhaps additives such as brewers yeast, in our feed. Digestion breaks down the proteins that are ingested into individual amino acids that are them absorbed into the blood stream.

Vitamins and co-enzymes are a particularly important component. There are a couple of key points that you must understand.  First, they are complex chemicals which can be rather easily destroyed by factors such as heat or pressure (e.g. in pellet processing) or time (as in storage or shelf life). Once destroyed they are of little value to the pigeon because in many cases the pigeon is not capable of making these compounds on their own and depends on obtaining them in their feed. So make sure you supplement your grain with a good source of vitamins and co-enzymes and be aware that how they are prepared and packaged can effect their potency. For example, I never buy vitamin mineral combinations since the high concentration of minerals can degrade vitamins. The second key point about vitamins that you must understand is that they consist of two types, the fat soluble vitamins and the water soluble vitamins. The fat soluble vitamins are A, D, E and K. They are stored in the fat bodies of the pigeon and they are toxic above a certain concentration. So don’t overdo them! The water soluble vitamins on the other hand are not toxic, but they are not appreciably stored in the pigeon for future use and must therefore be provided on a more regular basis.

With these ideas in mind, we:

  • We provide a high quality fresh grain mixture to the birds we fly (competitive racing and contemorary group testing). We use pigeon and chicken lay pellets for our breeders.
  • We add a garlic puree to all feed (see below under Strong Immune System).
  • We add a probiotic to all feed (see below under Balanced Digestive Track)
  • We also mix in with the grain we feed:
    • brewers yeast
    • Red Cell
  • Birds on grain receive free access to grit of two types:
    • Ground Oyster Shells
    • Rock based
  • Extra nutritional additives (meaning protein, vitamins and minerals not drugs or medications), are used during the moult and during racing.
  • Fresh clean water is always available. We treat with a small amount of chlorox to keep it free of bacteria and protozoans, but not enough to kill the friendly bacteria of the intestine. The water also includes Apple Cider Vinegar to create a pH of 6. This acidic state helps control canker and paratyphoid.

Strong Immune System - Even if we didn’t co-mingle pigeons (hard to competitively race and not do some of this), it is not possible to completely isolate our birds from exposure to disease causing organisms. Unless you raise them in an isolation bubble, they are going to be exposed from time to time to disease agents. Fortunately, we don’t have to just wait until our birds are sick and then treat them. Mother Nature has provided a much better approach, the immune system. Were there not such a system, none of us (or any other animals) would be alive today. It is a marvelous system that detects foreign antigens (such as viruses) and almost immediately launches an attack (by way of specific antibodies that are produced in response to the presence of the foreign antigen). The vast majority of the time, the antibodies defeat the invading antigens. During the period of time in which this “war” is being waged, the host organism (pigeons in our discussion) might become ill, but shows improvement once the war tips in favor of the antibodies and completely recover when the war is over. The antibodies that were produced during the war continue to remain in the host organism protecting against a new invasion. The recovered bird is now immune to further attacks (of that specific antigen) for as long as those antibodies remain viable in their body. Each antibody type has its own length of time that it remains viable after an infection. In humans the common cold antibodies typically last for about a month. This is why once you recover from a cold you usually don’t get another one for at least a month. Small Pox antibodies on the other hand have a “life” of about 10 years and then begin to diminish.

For many of the more devastating diseases, science has provided us with vaccines. This clever invention introduces to the pigeon a dead or modified virus that triggers an antibody production response.. The result is that the bird gets immunity to the disease without having to actually get infected and potentially ill. The period for which a PMV antibody remains viable is on the order of a year or so and so we must vaccinate annually for PMV. Antibodies for Pox on the other hand remain viable much longer and so we only vaccinate birds for Pox once as a young bird.

With these ideas in mind, we:

  • Vaccinate young birds for Pox and PMV at weaning. Two weeks later they are given a second PMV vaccination along with one for Paratyphoid.
  • Annually vaccinate all Old Birds for PMV and Paratyphoid.
  • Grind fresh garlic cloves into a puree (we use the Magic Bullet and blend 4 cloves with a half cup of Apple Cider Vinegar) and mix it into the feed (50 pounds in our case). Garlic contains allicin, ajoene and thiosulfinates which help build a strong immune system. We prefer to use fresh garlic (rather than powders or solutions) to insure the chemical activity of these three ingredients hasn’t been degraded through processing and storage. We do this every day for all feedings.

Balanced Digestive Track - This one is so critical! There are two reasons we must have a well established population of “good” bacteria in the intestine of our pigeons. First, there are certain nutrients that the pigeon needs that it is incapable of synthesizing on its own. Some of these are very complex molecules which could be acquired though the feed, but are unfortunately broken down and destroyed by the digestion process. Nature has devised a mechanism where certain bacteria which live in the intestine of the animal are able to make these compounds which can then be absorbed through the walls of the intestine into the blood stream. Kill off these “good” bacteria with antibiotics and you have deprived your pigeons of these needed nutrients.

Secondly, when there is a robust and thriving population of good bacteria in the intestine, there is a dramatically reduced opportunity for deleterious bacteria to become established (they are competing for the same space and nutrients and a new comer generally has a difficult time over taking an established population). For example, there are pathogenic strains of E coli which can kill a pigeon if allowed to establish themselves in the intestine. They reproduce at a rate of about one generation every twenty minutes and so it doesn’t take long for them to take over if given an opportunity. We provide probiotics (basically a seeding of the “good” bacteria) on all of our feed at all times. Technically, once a pigeon’s intestine has a robust population of the “good” bacteria, they do not benefit from this daily innoculation on the feed. However, the intestine is easily upset and the bacterial population balance can swing rather quickly. By providing this daily innoculation, we insure the “good” bacteria are available to repopulate the intestine. Absolutely after all medication treatments, a good probiotic should be fed for at least a week.  

Good Physical Condition and Fitness - Even birds that are not competing benefit from regular flight and exercise. It isn’t always possible to let your birds fly, but when you can it clearly contributes to improved health. For prisoners, an aviary where they can exercise provides real advantages.

Minimizing Stress - Do not over crowd! If your birds do not have at least 2 square feet of loft space, you are over crowding. This is the minimum, not the ideal. 25 cubic feet plus an aviary is closer to the ideal.

Strong Respiratory System - There are three components to this. First, the quality of the air in the loft. Make sure you have good ventilation and the birds are not over crowded. Ammonia is a very serious condition which affects respiration. Ammonia is produced by accumulated dropping in a moist environment. It can be brought on by humidity, a leaky waterer, or conditions in the feed (pellets produce very moist droppings which when accumulated can very easily produce ammonia). The ammonia fumes irritate the respiratory track and can cause respiratory problems (including the promotion of respiratory infections). General air pollution in your area is important too, but not much you can do about that.

Second, the birds need to be free of respiratory infections. This is a tough one. The are many viral and bacterial respiratory diseases and conditions that can affect the birds. Respiratory diseases are some of the most easily spread by bird to bird contact and through drinking water (unavoidable conditions when racing pigeons). Many fanciers make extensive use of medications to control respiratory diseases. I am not saying there is no place for these medications, but I am saying this is a very risky practice and almost certainly over done in the sport. Why? Overuse of medications create resistant strains and this can (and has already in a number of cases) lead to situations where we have no effective drug that treats the condition. Bear in mind also that viral infections are not treatable with anitbiotics (these only work on bacterial infections) and a given antibiotic does not work on every species of bacteria, so using them when they can’t really help gives us all the disadvantages with none of the advantages. The prefered way to combat respiratory infections is 1) keep breeders isolated from the flyers so each year’s young bird team starts out with a minimum of respiratory diseases and 2) promote a natural resistance to respiratory diseases through good nutrition,  a health promoting environment (everything described on this page) and culling (there is indeed a genetic component to disease resistance).

Finally, fitness plays a major role in the strength of the respiratory system. Regular exercise and training flights of several hours help develop the desired state.

With these ideas in mind, we:

  • Treat all water with a small amount of chlorox to keep it free of bacteria and protozoans, but not enough to kill the friendly bacteria of the intestine. (2 ounces for 30 gallons)
  • Are very careful about the situations where we use medications. One scenario where we believe it is appropriate is in the isolation unit where newly acquired birds are placed before being added to the breeding flock. We follow a regimen where we screen for certain diseases, vaccinate for PMV and Paratyphoid, and give a full treatment for worms, coccidiosis, canker and respiratory diseases. A second scenario (which I am still not convinced is the right way to go) is for the racing teams. We treat all of the teams at the beginning of the season and treat the young birds at periodic points during the season.
  • When using medications, follow the instructions exactly! Use the exact dose recommended and do not stop treatment early. Doing either of these can hasten the development of resistant strains. 

Free of Internal and External Parasites - Lice, pigeon flies, worms, malaria are all conditions which drain the energy of the bird and can be easily controlled with a little effort. Follow a regular worming program, test for malaria and regularly treat for external parasites. We use Ivermectin (the Sheep Drench version - it is water soluble and not oil based) as part of the worming program and for external parasites. The product should be used in the drinking water. For reasons I don’t understand, many people use it in the bath water instead of the drinking water. While a small dose will be absorbed though the skin, this is not the intended delivery mechanism and will almost certainly be ineffective if this is the only way it is applied.

Good Mental Health - Don’t ignore this aspect. Are your birds content and active or do they just sit on their perch or fly about in a panic when you enter the loft? I don’t really claim to know what my pigeons are thinking or what they consider as happiness, but I do know that this is a key part of total health and that if you sit and watch your pigeons, they will tell you how they are doing on this point.


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