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Site last updated on 10/19/17

Health is an incredibly important concept in pigeon racing. Without perfect (or at least near perfect) health, you simply can not be competitive. (see slides 5 to 7 here for a discussion of why this is the case.)

Maintaining this state of health is particularly difficult with our sport because of the very nature of racing; we co-mingle our old birds from many different lofts on the shipping truck and then we reintroduce them to our lofts when they return home from the race. And then we do it again every week for two months only to repeat the whole process again for the Young Bird races. If that isn't bad enough, we ship birds from all over the world to one loft races where they are exposed to every pigeon illness on the planet and then we bring back the ones who have preformed the best to breed in our lofts.

Even though these practices make it very challenging to establish perfect health, it nonetheless remains a requirement for successful racing.

Many people believe the best way to achieve this state of health is through the aggressive use of medications. There is another group  who believe just the opposite, that birds race the best in the long run without the use of medications. What is presented here is what I believe and practice. You can decide for yourself what you think is best for your loft and your situation.

The Guiding Principles of Our Health Program

  1. The focus should be on promoting health rather than treating for disease threats.

    The health problems of our birds are caused by more than just bacteria
    .
    Many fanciers erroneously believe that antibiotics cure and can prevent pigeon diseases. The truth is far from that simple:
    • Some bacterial infections are indeed effectively treated with specific antibiotics administered under specific protocols. However, there are two broad classes of bacteria (gram-negative and gram-positive) and any given antibiotic generally only works on either gram-negative OR gram-positive bacteria (not both).
    • On top of that, some strains of bacteria have become immune to some of the antibiotics that were previously effective. Indiscriminate use of antibiotics as a preventative measure (as opposed to using for a diagnosed condition) contributes to the further development of resistant strains. There are other drawbacks to using antibiotics. Some antibiotics are quite hard on the pigeons and most have a negative effect on the good bacteria of the gut that are vital for a healthy pigeon.
    • But here is the real clincher - the major diseases of pigeons are not caused only by bacteria; many are caused instead by viruses (adeno and circo virus to name two). Antibiotics have zero affect on a viral infection. (They are sometimes prescribed to treat or prevent secondary infections that are bacterial in nature, but antibiotics have no affect whatsoever on the virus infection itself).  There are very few anit-viral drugs available and the few that do exist are rather expensive and narrow in their specificity.
    • The only real strategy available to us for preventing viral diseases is a two pronged approach where we simultaneously promote a strong immune system in our birds (including the use of vaccines when they are available) and reduce conditions in the loft which favor viruses. The good news is that this approach works quite well AND it's effectiveness is not limited to just viral diseases; it works very well for all the diseases of our pigeons including those that are caused by bacteria. To put it another way, our focus should be on promoting health rather than using a regimen of antibiotics designed to prevent disease.
  2. This is not to say we should never use antibiotics or other medications. What it does mean is that we should treat with medications only when we have a diagnosed condition and we should follow the prescribed directions using the proper dose for the proper duration.

    So how do you promote health? There are four basic prongs to this approach:
  3. Promote a strong immune system
    • Vaccinate breeders
    • Vaccinate squeekers early (3 weeks for futurity entries and 4 weeks for all others) and then 2 to 4 weeks later
    • Exposure young birds (through co-mingling) to the bacteria and viruses present in your loft, but do so under the best possible “healthy environment” conditions described below.
    • Provide fresh garlic in the feed. We use a Magic Bullet blender to mix 1 cup of Apple Cider Vinegar with 1 whole clump (not just a single clove) of garlic and mix this with 50 pounds and feed immediately.
  4. Provide a healthy environment
    • Reduce stress. This is so important. Stress is actually cited by one research paper as being the number one cause of immunosuppression in birds. (Yegani M et al. (2005) “Immunosuppression threat” World Poultry. 21(2):18-22.). While some low level stress can actually have a positive effect on the immune system, significant stress (and certainly extreme stress) can cause major suppression of the immune system. The best approach is to always strive to reduce stress whenever possible. Birds being sent to a futurity, for example, should never be weaned, vaccinated and shipped all on the same day. Over crowding is certainly one of the most common forms of stress created by many pigeon fanciers and should ALWAYS be avoided.
    • Provide an acidic water supply (water with a pH of less than 7). Trichomoniasis (the protozoan that causes canker) thrives best in an alkaline (basic or non-acidic) environment, so making the drinking water acidic keeps this parasite at bay. We have not had to treat for canker in over ten years.
    • Avoid exposing your birds to molds. Mycotoxins (produced by the microscopic fungi commonly known as molds) have been cited as a leading cause of immunosuppression in birds.(“Fungal/Mycotic Diseases of Poultry-diagnosis, Treatment and Control: A Review”, PJSB 16(23):1626-1640,2013). These molds can appear on feed or on loft surfaces.
    • Use probiotics. They really are important and help create a gut environment which makes it much more difficult for pathogenic bacteria to get established in the bird(s). There are many good sources but also some that are not so effective. Probiotics are living microorganisms and so if not stored properly they die and when that happens they are totally useless. There is no harm is making them available every day, but it is not necessary if a good population is established in the birds. It is particularly important that it be used during periods of stress and after all antibiotic treatments. We currently use PrimaLac from Star Labs.
    • Prebiotics are essentially food for the probiotic microorganisms. They are a type of plant fiber (usually oligosaccarides). As with probiotics there is no harm in daily use, but it is an expense that is probably not needed on a continual basis in a healthy flock. We currently only use them when weaning squeekers and for our race teams during the race season, The two products we use are Cometose (by Comed) and Chisholm Trail Health Blend (by DoveSupply.com), Both of these products include a prebiotic in their mixture along with other ingredients which their manufacturer’s claim provide wonderful benefits. How much of this is true, I do not know. They do though perform well as a prebiotic and I use them for this purpose. You don’t need to use both. I first started using Cometose and more recently have tried Chisholm Trail. At this time I have no preference. I like them both.
    • Feed a properly balanced diet including vitamins and minerals. A particularly good product is VitaMineral (by Natural). I use it as a mineral source and sprinkle it on the grit once a week. It does have vitamins A D and E, but I use another product for my  vitamins (Red Cell by Farnam). 
    • Control rodents, external parasites, worms and blood parasites. This is absolutely essential! We have numerous bait stations around the loft that we monitor every month to make sure rats and mice never get a foot hold. If you see one there are always at least fifty. We treat for external parasites and worms using Ivermectin Sheep Drench (50 ml per gallon of drinking water for a period of 24 hours). We do this once a month. The race and test birds are also dipped in a Permectin bath once a month during the period when they are flying. 
    • Monitor the health of the flock through regular examinations. Remember I am not saying not to treat problems, just don’t treat to prevent a problem that isn’t known to be present in your loft. One of the key ways to keep a situation from getting out of hand and potentially ruining a race season is to frequently monitor the health of the race team. We do four types of monitoring exams and typically do all four at the beginning of training, again two weeks before the first race and again mid way through the season (or when symptoms develop). The four types of monitoring we perform are:
      • crop smears
      • fecal samples
      • blood tests
      • lab postings
  5. Avoid unnecessary risk
    • Maintain good biosecurity (to the best extent possible). Be particularly careful to keep the breeding flock isolated from the racing flock, using good biosecurity practices (click here for additional biosecurity information).
    • Practice a strict quarantine protocol
  6. Exert genetic selection pressure for disease resistance and general thriftiness. There is a genetic component to bird health.
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