OF PROBIOTICS IN RACING PIGEONS
By Dr Colin Walker BSc, BVSc, MRCVS, MACVSc
The bacteria-host relationship
Through evolution, bacteria and warm-blooded animals have closely
associated themselves to form a closed system for mutual benefit.
Through trial and error, over millennia, populations of bacteria
have evolved that are indigenous to their animal host. The animal
host receives the benefits of aid in the digestive process, manufacture
of essential nutrients, protection against other undesirable bacteria,
assistance in control of water in the body and other metabolic advantages.
The bacteria in return receive temperatures favourable for their
growth, a constant supply of nutrients and essential substances in
the form of the body’s secretions. Because of the exact nature
of this relationship, there are bacterial populations that are the
most favourable for the host animal.
Each member of this mutually beneficial relationship is profoundly
influenced by the other. When certain changes occur in the host,
corresponding changes are reflected in bacterial populations
in the bowel. Bacterial changes may occur as a result of stress,
diet change, antibiotic therapy and other factors. Conversely,
as the resident bacterial population changes, there are subsequent
changes in the animal’s activity. These include alterations
in the host’s ability to digest its food and its ability
to protect itself from bowel disease. The animal host then has
the problem of getting back to an ideal relationship with its
normal resident population of bacteria. Hopefully it can accomplish
such a relationship before subsequent challenges again upset
the ideal state.
Where animals are not stressed, have an appropriate diet, are
not crowded, are not given drugs, do not contract infection or
metabolic diseases and live in a clean environment, an ideal level
of intestinal bacterial population may be maintained on a rather
steady basis. In fact, no differences are generally reported in
numerous trials under these ideal conditions.
The conditions described above, however, do not fit the environment
under which our pigeons race. Even in the best lofts, under the
best managers, birds are subjected to various stresses. This
means that disruption of the normal balance of intestinal bacteria
can be a common event. If an ideal state is maintained, there
is optimal utilization of nutrients and a resistance to harmful
organisms. This has been shown in numerous experiments.
What is a probiotic?
The organisms that are normally found in the bowel of healthy non-stressed
animals are called probiotics. The probiotic concept involves
the refeeding or reintroduction of these bacteria to an animal.
Many studies in many countries have shown that, although these
bacteria can control and exclude other harmful bacteria, they
are in fact the most likely to be disrupted by stress. Most probiotic
products consist of naturally occurring living cultures of specific
strains of Lactobacilli and enteric Streptococcus (Enterococcus).
Restoring the balance
Once it was established that the feeding of certain live bacteria
to animals has the potential to produce beneficial effects under
certain circumstances, ie when the normal bacterial balance has
been disrupted, the actual delivery of these organisms from the
laboratory to the animal became the next hurdle. Pharmaceutical
companies have now overcome this. The large Japanese pharmaceutical
company Yakult manufactures a human probiotic (Lactobacillus
casei) as a milk-based drink in Victoria. This is distributed
through the eastern States of Australia. One million bottles
are consumed by Australians every week. Fourteen million are
consumed in Japan every day! Interestingly, in people, studies
have shown that individuals who drink ‘Yakult’ and
are exposed to diseases such as Salmonella are much less likely
to become unwell. Probiotic use in people has also been shown
to decrease the chance of bowel cancer. As many of the harmful
bacteria produce toxins that are carcinogenic, ie can induce
cancer, their exclusion can decrease the risk of this disease.
In birds, there are gel preparations of probiotics for individual
dosing and also water-soluble powders to treat the flock. These
provide selected beneficial live bacteria with excellent stability
when protected from extreme heat and moisture. Because of the intimate
relationship between the host animal and its bacterial population,
it is important that the correct organisms are supplied in probiotic
preparation for any given species. Probiotic supplements need to
be prepared with a particular species in mind and the more types
of normal bacteria that can be provided, the better. For use in
pigeons, therefore, multistrain avian-origin probiotic supplements
are used.Mode of action
And so how do they work?
Competitive inhibition - It is known that the beneficial bacteria
produce lactic acid, hydrogen peroxide, antibiotic and other substances
that help keep potential pathogens under control. As many fanciers
are aware, the most likely potential invaders are E. coli and Candida
(yeast or thrush) and in fancy birds, Salmonella. These organisms
are opportunists, waiting to cause disease whenever pigeons become
stressed. Stress causes disruption to the normal bowel bacteria
and gives these organisms a chance to invade. The pH in the bowel
in health is mildly acidic. With E. coli infection, it becomes
alkaline. Anything that acidifies the bowel will create a hostile
environment for the E. coli, thus making it harder for the organisms
to survive. This is why the addition of controlled levels of various
acids to the drinking water exerts a beneficial effect with these
infections and also why the older practice of adding apple cider
vinegar (acetic acid) to the water can help. The lactic acid produced
by probiotics produces the same result. In addition to weakly acidifying
the bowel, probiotics do much more to help the bird in that they
produce protective slime layers that coat the bowel lining and
also preferentially occupy receptor sites on the bowel wall, in
the process excluding bacteria such as E. coli. They therefore
offer an effective natural way of combating the problem without
the need for antibiotics. In addition, there is no risk associated
with their use as there can be with acids. By treating the birds,
we are simply flooding the bowel with beneficial bacteria, which,
through their normal activity, re-establish health.
Appetite stimulation - Probiotics appear to have a strong appetite
stimulatory effect. They are known to produce digestive enzymes
and B vitamins. These effects help the bird to get the maximum
nutrition from their grain. One recently reported study in America
demonstrated that hand-raised cockatiel chicks weaned at 6 weeks
of age, supplemented every second day with probiotics, were 14%
heavier at weaning than chicks that received no probiotics.
Immune stimulation - Recent work by scientists throughout the world
indicates that probiotics stimulate general immunity.
Use of probiotics
So when can the fancier use probiotics to his advantage?.
After any stress - It is well known that stress induces a disruption
of the normal bowel bacteria and that the beneficial bacteria are
the first ones to be lost with stress. Once these beneficial bacteria
are removed from their normal environment by stress, many more
are lost from the digestive tract and are replaced by an overgrowth
of non-beneficial bacteria. This can result in diarrhoea, loss
of performance, decreased appetite and in the stock loft, inhibited
growth and limited weight gain in the youngsters. Probiotics restore
the balance of beneficial to non-beneficial bacteria. They are
best given as soon as possible after the stress or just before
the time of the stress. By doing so, disease or performance problems
may be avoided.
In the stock loft - Use probiotics regularly in the stock loft
as part of routine management, particularly during the breeding
season. Use two to three times weekly when the stock birds are
feeding youngsters. This helps the birds resist E. coli (often
associated with wet nests) and ensures that the birds get the maximum
nutrition possible out of their seed at a time that often puts
real demands on them. Probiotic use will help the parents produce
vigorous robust young.
In the race loft - Probiotics can be used in the race loft to
both treat and prevent E. coli and Candid infections. Stress disrupts
the bowel bacteria, giving E. coli and yeast the opportunity to
cause disease. In lofts where these are a problem, probiotics can
be used whenever E. coli or yeasts are seen under the microscope,
when the droppings become green or green and watery, or when there
are weather conditions that favour E. coli, in particular when
the weather is cold and damp or humid. In such lofts, it is a good
idea to give probiotics routinely as part of the loft’s disease
management program, with the focus here being on disease prevention
rather than waiting for disease to appear. When E. coli and yeast
flare-ups are a problem, our challenge is to identify the stress
that caused the flare up while at the same time helping the birds
clear the E. coli and yeast through use of probiotics. With no
on-going stress, the droppings will appear normal within 24 hours
of the start of probiotic use. Having said all that, probiotics
are not a cure-all. A non-response to probiotics can be expected
in one of two situations:
When the stress is on-going - It is important to identify and if
possible eliminate any predisposing stress to ensure a good response
to treatment. I draw the analogy here of trying to dry a floor
without turning the tap off. Stress can come from a problem with
the loft environment or management or may be associated with one
of the more serious diseases such as canker, respiratory infection,
Coccidia or worms. With identification and correction of the underlying
stress, a good response to probiotics can be expected.
Severe E. coli infection - Severe infections pass the point where
it is possible to treat them successfully with either probiotics
or bowel acids and it becomes necessary to use stronger medication
such as sulphur-based antibiotics. These actually kill the E. coli
but they should be used with caution as they also kill many beneficial
bacteria, can compromise feather quality and cause nausea in the
birds. If given, they should be given for only 1 - 2 days and it
is best to use them early in the week so that the birds have a
couple of days between their use and basketing. Treating with probiotics
can, however, often prevent the infection progressing to the point
where these antibiotics need to be used.
Postrace - The stress of racing itself causes disruption to the
normal bowel population. Fanciers will have noticed that the droppings
of birds that have raced often take 24 - 48 hours to return fully
to normal. With my own birds, I find that if they come home to
probiotics, then the next morning it is much more likely that the
droppings will be normally formed and brown and that the bird will
continue with a feather down drop. Probiotics can be combined with
electrolytes and vitamins.
Postweaning - At this time, we don’t want to use drugs.
We want to develop a strong natural immunity. Probiotics specifically
Following antibiotic use - Particularly during racing, probiotic
use after antibiotics hastens the re-establishment of the normal
Moulting - Maintaining a healthy bowel during moulting aids in
on-going nutrient delivery to the developing feather in the feather
follicle and decreases the chance of fret marks, etc.
In the show loft - Probiotics can help birds resist Salmonella.
Although all pigeons are susceptible to Salmonella, clinical disease
is seen more commonly in fancy breeds rather than racing birds.
Certain breeds are particularly susceptible, e.g. Modenas, Show
Homers and the high flying breeds, especially Doneks. The way an
outbreak is managed depends on the severity of the problem. Regular
probiotics have been shown to help birds resist the disease.
It has become the belief of some fliers lately that fit racing
birds should have sterile (i.e. absolutely no bacteria) in their
bowels. I can understand how this belief originated in that, with
some bacteria, notably E. coli, the fewer we can see on faecal
smears the better. However, to extend this to all bacteria is a
definite mistake. Let me state here that there is absolutely no
evidence in the scientific literature to support the belief that
a healthy racing pigeon has no bacteria in its bowel. In fact,
quite the opposite is the case. What we want is a healthy mixed
population of normal bacteria doing their job to help maintain
the health of the bird. For many years, I have been examining many
droppings every day. Many of these come regularly from top lofts
and I have never seen a dropping with no bacteria. Fanciers with
their own microscopes will notice that when their birds are at
the peak of fitness, bacteria are visible in their droppings. Closer
to home, I have won twelve open VHA Federation races with between
2000 and 9000 birds competing and, despite examining my birds’ droppings
on a weekly basis, have never found a single sterile dropping.
The experts tell us that the only situation in which a pigeon’s
bowel would become sterile is either through antibiotic abuse or
heavy metal poisoning. The last thing you want to do is lose the
beneficial population of bacteria in your birds’ bowels.
I feel that there are already enough theories in pigeon racing,
so let’s stick to what is known to be fact.
Probac is a multistrain avian-origin probiotic made specifically
for pigeons. It is the probiotic preparation that I recommend.
It can be added to the drinking water at the rate of 1 teaspoon
to 4 litres or added to the grain (after first moistening with
a seed oil, ½ - 1 ml per kg) at the rate of 1/3 teaspoon
(1 gram) to 1 kg.
Note on Probiotic Use
In some metropolitan areas, the addition of fluoride or chlorine
to drinking water may interfere with the action of probiotics.
In metropolitan areas, treatment plants are situated throughout
the water distribution network. According to Australian authorities,
the concentration of fluoride and chlorine throughout most of
the network is too low to exert an effect. However, the concentration
in the water of fanciers close to a treatment plant may be high
enough to kill the probiotics. These substances will, however,
evaporate from treated water if it is allowed to stand for 24
hours. Fanciers in any doubt are best to set aside water to be
medicated with probiotics for 24 hours before use. Simply standing
the required volume of water in several buckets awaiting use
Alternatively, most water-soluble probiotic preparations can be
added to the seed. Indeed, with some preparations, this ensures
a more immediate and effective delivery of the probiotics to the
Probiotic use really is at the forefront of avian veterinary practice.
Modern technology involved in probiotic preparation protects the
probiotics against stomach acids, bile salts and digestive enzymes
so that large numbers of live organisms arrive in the bowel after
ingestion to exert their various beneficial effects. Interestingly,
human probiotic preparations are being developed to target specific
bacterial infections. In man, a bacterium Bacillus cereus causes
a gastroenteritis. This infection is not fatal but is responsible
for many lost days of work annually in the population. Rather than
being prescribed antibiotics, patients are prescribed a specific
probiotic ‘yoghurt’ that controls the infection. According
to the companies involved, with this technology now in place, more
difficult organisms like E. coli, which have a large number of
strains and mutate more readily, will be tackled. Once available,
these preparations will be beneficial and useful to fanciers as
they will mean that these infections can be managed without resorting
to form-reducing antibiotics.