By Dr Colin Walker BSc, BVSc, MRCVS, MACVSc
From a veterinary health point of view pigeons represent an extreme
therapeutic challenge. In a closed stock loft or parrot aviary, where
the movement of birds in and out is very low it is simply a matter
of testing birds, identifying what diseases are present and treating
them. Once this has been done good care, good nutrition and the provision
of good housing should then prevent any stressed based disease from
flaring. In racing lofts however, a large proportion of the residents
leave each week and then return after mixing with birds from many
different lofts usually under conditions that favor the spread of
Obviously we cannot give medication to these birds all the time
and so we try to develop a strong natural immunity in them. It
is this natural immunity that protects the birds from disease in
the longer term. A strong natural immunity develops through ongoing
good care and the correct use of medication. With this in mind
I find it easiest to divide the year into six stages. Each stage
has its own aim and the correct way to use medication differs in
each stage. These stages are:
Aim: To start the breeding season with healthy stock birds.
Parasitic disease and diseases that were a problem in the loft
during the previous breeding season are best treated now.
Aim: To produce healthy robust young ready for weaning no later
than 28 days of age and to maintain the health and condition of
the stock birds.
With the exception of canker, disease appearing now often reflects
inadequate preparation for breeding. Medicating breeding stock
birds is a challenge because many of the drugs used can have side
effects during this period and accurate dosing is difficult because
of the variable water intake in feeding stock birds depending on
the age of their youngsters.
Post weaning stage
Aim: To allow a controlled exposure to disease organisms so that
the youngsters can develop a strong natural immunity to them. This
is achieved by providing a stress-free environment and by avoiding
the use of medication if possible.
Medication is best avoided now. Mild disease now can sometimes
act almost as a mini vaccination, strengthening the growing birds
natural immunity through low-grade ongoing disease exposure. Usually
disease is only treated if it progresses to the stage where it
compromises the bird’s growth and development.
Aim: To have a good moult resulting in the production of a lustrous
set of feathers and to allow ongoing development of a strong natural
immunity. This is achieved through the maintenance of a stress-free
environment, drug avoidance, parasite elimination and a complete
Because feather growth occurs continuously over several months,
and feather quality is poor if the birds are not healthy, examining
the bird’s feathers is like looking at a diary outlining
the bird’s health during the moulting time. Feathers have
to last all year. A poor moult results in poor quality feathers
and compromise of race performance for the whole season. Many common
drugs such as antibiotics and some wormers affect feather quality.
Best always to check with an avian vet first before using medication
during this time.
Pre race stage
Aim: Having allowed as much time as possible for the birds to form
their natural immunity it is now a matter of assessing what health
problems are persistant, and then using drugs, if necessary, to
get the birds completely healthy before the first race.
Interestingly when many birds from good lofts are checked at this
time no disease is apparent. A clinical examination, crop flush
and faecal smear will identify most of the common problems. If
present, now is a good time to treat them.
Aim: To maintain winning form through the entire season by good
management and maintenance of health.
This is when it gets interesting. It is also the time when most
fanciers start making serious mistakes.
During competition medication is used to maintain health. It is
vital that the birds are completely free of any health problems
to give of their best. Winning birds are always not only fit but
also healthy. If the natural immunity they have formed is not strong
enough to keep them healthy during the inherent stress of racing,
then medication is used to ensure that health is maintained, so
that success can be ongoing and unnecessary losses avoided.
Each loft has its own set of parameters all of which affect disease.
Loft parameters include such things as the genetic base of the
birds, the loft design, the geographical location of the loft,
and the way the birds are managed generally.
If the set of parameters governing a particular loft is unchanged
then any health problem that occurred in previous years will predictably
reappear. This is why successful, preventative health programs
can be reapplied in particular lofts year after year.
However, some health problems are more likely to occur in a particular
type of loft, or in lofts in particular locations. This explains
why a program that works well in one loft is inappropriate in another.
Good examples of this include Janssens and wet canker, and the
correlation of cold, damp lofts with Ecoli. It seems that when
raced under Australian conditions, Janssens take longer to form
a protective natural immunity against wet canker than many Australian
strains. Fanciers racing these birds therefore need to ensure very
good control of this problem. Similarly birds living in cold, damp
lofts are more vulnerable to Ecoli. Birds with these problems can
still win but only provided that the fancier is aware of them and
manages them correctly.
Two options are open to the fancier. He can have the health of
his birds monitored through regular testing and treat his birds
appropriately for his situation, or alternatively he can work through
a health protocol blindly. This difficulty here of course is that
his birds may have medications for problems that they don’t
have, while at the same time be under-treated for serious problems
in his loft. He may in fact be using a health program that would
work best in another loft.
Obviously testing and the wise use of medication is the way to
go. Basically we don’t want to give unnecessary drugs, but
also we don’t want to race poorly or experience losses due
to an overlooked health problem.
Racing studs represent a great opportunity to study the effects
of loft parameters. In many lofts fanciers have one or two strains
and many of the birds are related. While in racing studs often
many birds of quite different genetics are raced. In this situation
there is one loft and one training and feeding regime, but many
different genes and so the effect that this one parameter, i.e.
the birds genetic make-up, has on health can be studied. The results
help to explain the conflicting advise that a new fancier can receive
from experienced fliers.
If you ask ten different experienced fanciers a question about
pigeon management you are just as likely to get ten different answers.
It is not that anyone is being non-truthful, but simply that they
are answering purely from their own experience and because each
of them has a different set of loft parameters, each of which is
likely to be different, their answer purely reflects what is correct
for them. For example in a loft based on Janssens the advice may
be that the birds are best raced only every three weeks. If the
fancier doesn’t treat this may be due to the birds having
a wet canker flare up after a race which takes three weeks to resolve,
at which time the birds are competitive again. Goodgers often form
a very strong natural immunity to wet canker at quite a young age.
So a fancier that races Goodgers may suggest that, after a steady
race, some birds should be doubled back because the first race
can act as a conditioning race. And so we have it, different answers
to the one question. Both correct but only for that loft. The correct
advice to a novice should be to have his birds checked and see
what is best for his loft.
Fanciers often ask, why did my birds get sick during racing? Disease
can only appear in one of two situations:
Exposure to disease causing organisms, in particular new strains
of wet canker and respiratory infection. Because these strains
are not resident in their own loft, the birds cannot possibly have
developed immunity to them.
For this reason, disease flare- ups can occur in well-managed lofts
with resultant loss of form and variable losses.
Severe stress leading to flare ups of resident strains of organisms.
Overcrowding and low hygiene are the obvious ones in poor lofts.
In successful lofts un-foreseen stresses, such as an unexpectedly
difficult toss in cold weather, can occur.If and when disease occurs
medication is used to:
Control disease while the environment or management flaw that lead
to it occurring is corrected. The correct approach for a long-
term solution is not always obvious. For example, in birds with
low numbers of coccidia on their faecal smear, the answer may
not necessarily be an anti-coccidia drug such as Baycox, but
rather a reduction in the amount of tossing and a multivitamin
Control new diseases that enter the loft with returning race birds
so that health, and with it fitness and race form can re-establish.
It’s an interesting thing. If a fancier has seven good races
in a twenty week program, then given the variabilities in wind
direction etc, then one would expect his seven good races to be
scattered through the program. Yet, in fact, this is rarely the
case. More often than not his seven good races are likely to occur
in a run of eight or nine starts. When his good run finishes it
is explained simply by saying that the birds have “lost form”.
Yet invariably, when we check these birds we find that Ecoli, wet
canker or Chlamydia etc has become involved. Once a loft’s
health problems have been identified, then they can be prevented.
Then given a sensible tossing regime, a well designed loft, and
astute care there is no reason why consistent form should not be
maintained through an entire season.