Distance and time can sometimes be obstacles for fanciers wanting to get to an avian veterinarian. Many fanciers live a long way from an avian vet and even those who live close by can find it hard to find the time to get to the vet. Looking through our clinic records, it can be seen that over 50% of our clients live more than 80 km away. Providing a professional veterinary service to clients at a distance is an issue that often has to be addressed.
From a veterinary point of view, it is easiest to reach a diagnosis if birds can be brought to the clinic for examination and testing. Indeed, it can be very hard or even impossible to make an accurate diagnosis and therefore give real advice that is going to help the fancier without having an actual pigeon to examine. Sometimes, however, it is too easy for a vet or fancier to say it is too hard because of the distance involved. With some effort on both the vet’s and fancier’s behalf, the difficulty of distance can be overcome. Often the initial point of contact is over the phone or via email.
Fanciers need to avoid making a presumptive diagnosis but, rather, attempt to accurately relay the symptoms that the birds are showing. For example, some fanciers phone us and say that their birds have canker, despite treatment. They suspect that the canker medication is not working and often request ‘something stronger’. Saying that birds have canker is a diagnosis. What the fancier should be saying is that he has birds with some yellow material in their mouth and that a course of canker medication has not fixed them. This is a description of symptoms. A veterinarian would then start to consider that the birds may have one of the other causes of yellow material in the throat, such as mucosal pox or a respiratory infection. The diagnostic process can be guided by the veterinarian in response to the fancier’s description of symptoms.
Sometimes fanciers contact our clinic with very non-specific signs such as the birds are reluctant to fly or some are a bit quiet and fluffed. They ask whether I have an idea or any theories as to what the problem might be. It’s a bit like ringing a motor mechanic from home, with the car parked in the garage, and saying the car won’t start and asking what could it be. A veterinary friend of mine, when in this situation, asks the client over the phone if he likes his tie. The fancier says ‘I don’t know, I can’t see your tie’, to which the vet replies ‘and I can’t see your bird’.
It’s no good knowing what the list of possibilities for a problem might be. What needs to be known is which one on the list is the problem in that loft.
Sometimes, however, a detailed description, particularly from an experienced fancier, makes a tentative diagnosis possible; for example, description of a canker nodule in the wall of the crop or of a motile tapeworm segment in the bird’s dropping. It is, however, very important to interpret observed signs correctly and to place the correct emphasis on these. To use the sign of panting as an example, the temptation is to jump to a diagnosis of respiratory disease because panting is a respiratory act. Although birds with a respiratory infection are more likely to pant, panting is more a reflection of decreased exercise tolerance and can, in fact, occur with any disease that saps energy. The alternatives here include worms, coccidia, E. coli, etc. Panting is not necessarily associated with disease. The birds may simply be unfit, fat or hot.
One must be careful not to jump to a premature diagnosis or place the wrong emphasis on observed signs. Sometimes it is important for the fancier to think laterally. Once a fancier rang and said that his birds’ droppings were green and watery. One might think of one of the bowel diseases, such as E. coli or coccidiosis in this situation. It turned out that a hawk was hanging off the wire when the owner was away. The birds could not reach the food, leading to green droppings, and were prematurely emptying their cloaca, leading to watery droppings, when the hawk was there. The dropping change was not associated with disease and no medication would have fixed the birds. At the risk of boring the reader, I relate the following story to illustrate the importance of correctly interpreting the signs seen.
"A scientist was conducting an experiment on the ability of frogs to jump. He blew a whistle and the frog jumped 2m. He recorded this observation. He then cut off one of the frog’s legs and blew his whistle again. The frog jumped 1m. Similarly, he recorded this observation. He then cut off the frog’s other leg and blew the whistle again. The frog did not move. He made the following conclusion .... frogs with no legs are deaf."
Often, the problem described by the fancier is non-specific. A fancier, for example, may say that his birds are reluctant to fly and that his race results are disappointing. This type of problem is challenging to unravel and may or may not have a health basis. It may relate to a management matter, such as feeding or the level of training, but as often as not, management and health are so integrally related that the solution to a problem involves looking at both aspects. I always try to help with management suggestions where I can, but acting as a diagnosing veterinarian at a distance, I must find out what diseases (if any) are active.
An accurate diagnosis permits accurate and correct advice to be given and also enables the development of an understanding of the problem so that measures can be taken to prevent it occurring again. So how does a fancier who cannot get to an avian vet obtain an accurate diagnosis? The answer is often to submit the correct samples from a distance, and these days it is not difficult. Submitted samples can include droppings, a canker pouch, a drop of blood, and also dead or live birds.
Five of the most important and common diseases in pigeons are canker, coccidiosis, Circo virus, PMV, worms and respiratory infection. These days all of these (and others) can be diagnosed from submitted samples. How is this done? Usually the initial test is a dropping analysis.
Coccidiosis and worms To diagnose these problems, droppings are posted to the vet. Simply go out to the loft (late afternoon is best because this is when coccidia eggs are shed in the highest numbers) and collect six to ten droppings from different perches (so they are from different birds) in a single watertight container. Include any that are green or watery. A bank coin bag with a press seal works well. Put this is an overnight bag and mail it to the vet. The vet can check these droppings for coccidia and worms. Sometimes other problems such as Hexamita, yeast and bacterial infections can be found.
The vet can also stain the dropping sample and look for an elevated level of what are called gram negative bacteria (e.g. E. coli) and also yeasts. An elevation of one of these organisms can be associated with an infection by that organism but, more commonly, in racing pigeons during the racing season, this is an indication of stress. Other systemic diseases such as wet canker and respiratory infection, as well as faults with management or training (such as over training, under feeding or persistent cold weather) stress the birds, leading to a general immune suppression (i.e. impaired ability to fight infection) and these opportunistic organisms increase in the droppings as a result. Although not specific to any one problem, their presence in high numbers does show that the birds are in fact ‘not right’.
Once we have a microscopic dropping result to work with, this can point us in the direction that a phone conversation should follow. Sometimes it enables a definitive diagnosis; for example, of a coccidia or worm infection. Sometimes it indicates what further tests may be needed to accurately figure out the solution. For example, if the fancier had noticed an outbreak of sneezing (a reliable indicator of respiratory infection) and some birds had dirty ceres and the droppings showed an elevated level of gram negative bacteria, a respiratory test might be indicated or a short treatment trial on a respiratory medication.
The appearance of the dropping upon arrival also gives a lot of information. Bright green small droppings can indicate reduced food intake. Fluorescent green normal sized droppings can indicate liver problems. Very watery droppings can be associated with wet canker, or respiratory infections, or indeed a range of other things.
A Trich pouch
Canker Wet canker is the most common and serious disease of racing pigeons during the racing season and stops good pigeons from performing well. And yet often nothing is visible to the fancier in the loft. If a bird is in the clinic, saliva can be aspirated from the throat and examined immediately under the microscope to check for these organisms. If there is a delay in examination the organisms die, making their identification difficult.
These days, canker pouches are available that can be mailed to the vet. These are small plastic bags with a clip seal, full of a nutrient solution that keeps the canker organisms alive. Take a clean cotton bud and wipe it around the inside of the pigeon’s throat and then dip it into the fluid in the bag and stir (not unlike stirring a cup of tea). Remove the cotton bud and seal the canker bag. It will look to you as if there is nothing on the cotton bud but if canker organisms are present there will be many, many of them there and they will be easy for the vet to detect. Repeat the procedure with as many birds as you like and then mail the bag to the vet in the same way as for the droppings.
AvianLabs have now also developed a QUICK test for canker. This test can be done in the loft by the fancier on a sample of throat mucous mailed to the vet for testing.
Sometimes, when we examine a crop flush or the contents of a canker pouch microscopically, other problems can be picked up. For example, in a bird with respiratory disease, evidence of the secondary inflammation and infection that occur can sometimes be seen. In respiratory infection, mucus is coughed up from the inflamed windpipe lining into the throat or drains through the ‘slot’ in the roof of the mouth from inflamed sinuses. As it does so, it carries the bird’s white blood cells and secondary bacteria (usually E. coli) with it, enabling more accurate diagnosis. In crop flushes, we can also find yeasts, bacteria associated with primary crop infections, sometimes crop worm eggs, swallowed mite eggs and red blood cells. Questioning of the fancier again becomes important. Sometimes I will suggest a treatment trial with a canker drug, if there are stress changes in the dropping and the birds are displaying signs of wet canker, such as gulping after eating or displaying a ‘penguin posture’. It is, however, much better if the diagnosis is confirmed with a crop flush, canker pouch or QUICK test. It is here, however, that it is really useful for fanciers to have their own microscopes or a friend who has one, because it not only allows conclusive diagnosis but can also detect a rise in levels before the birds become visibly unwell. It is extremely useful and at times invaluable when fliers phone and, together with a description of the birds, can describe what is seen down their microscope.
Respiratory infection The most common cause of respiratory infection in pigeons is Chlamydia. To see if birds are infected a fancier can send a drop of blood and/or some cells collected from the eyelid or throat. This may sound difficult, but in fact it is really easy. A Chlamydia test kit contains only three things – a needle, a fine strip of blotting paper and a small clip lock plastic test tube. The bird is pricked with the needle at the end of the toe, at the base of the claw. When a drop of blood oozes to the skin surface it is wiped off with the paper and the paper is then put into the test tube and the lid clipped shut. The test tube with the paper inside is then mailed to the vet. In the early stages of infection, Chlamydia is found in the membranes lining the throat and eyelid, while later in the infection it appears in the blood. This means that if the fancier wants to be particularly thorough he can wipe the paper over the roof of the bird’s mouth or place it between the eyeball and eyelid and let the bird blink a few times before putting the drop of blood on the paper. Once the paper is submitted to the vet with a few cells and blood on it this can be accurately checked for Chlamydia, using a test called a PCR. Doing this test means that, if the birds are sneezing, for example, reluctant to fly or panting after moderate exercise – signs that may or may not be due to respiratory infection–the fancier will know whether his birds have a respiratory infection or not, and will or will not benefit from a course of antibiotics. In the same way, samples can be sent in for a chlamydia QUICK test or a Chlamydia immunocomb test, as outlined in an earlier chapter.
Circo, Herpes, Paramyxo and Adeno viruses All of these viruses can now be diagnosed accurately with a PCR test from a mailed-in sample. The Circo virus test is done on blood. The Herpes virus test can be done on blood or, preferably, a throat or cloacal swab. To test for PMV, a cloacal swab is best, while for Adeno virus the test is done on blood or droppings. Blood is collected on to a test paper (mailed to you by your vet).
The identical technique is used as for collecting a drop of blood for Chlamydia PCR testing as set out above. Indeed, the same sample can be used. Droppings are mailed in, also as outlined above. The PCR test checks for the presence of viral DNA in the sample and, as the DNA is very stable, it doesn’t matter if the sample takes several days to reach your vet. QUICK tests are also available for PMV and Adeno virus and can be done on the same samples.
More serious diseases More serious diseases require either live or dead birds to be couriered or posted to the clinic. Pigeons are not delicate birds and they do not die easily. If a bird dies at home, its body can be posted to a vet for autopsy. Do not freeze the body, as this destroys all of the tissues for diagnosis. It is important, however, that the body is chilled and posted as quickly as possible. Decomposition in pigeons starts in four hours. A good idea is to dip the body into an icy bucket of water containing a detergent. This enables the cold water to flush through the feathers and come into contact with the skin. Let the bird soak for one to two hours, then wrap it in several layers of newspaper, place in an overnight bag and mail to the vet. Dead birds are always worth mailing but, after 12 and 24 hours the level of diagnostic accuracy starts to significantly decline. It is usually routine and surprisingly economical to courier in unwell live birds. Fanciers should ring their local vet who will be able to advise them of the couriers usually used.
Live birds can usually be sent by road or rail or to a local airport. It is best to send them in a secure box that does not need to be returned. Live birds can have a health profile (crop flush and dropping analysis) performed in the same way as birds brought to the clinic by local fanciers. A better judgment can be made of the bird’s general condition if it is presented alive. If necessary, the bird can be euthanased and suitable samples for bacterial culture and pathology collected. This can be expensive and so should be reserved for difficult cases. After euthanasia, the autopsy begins. Sometimes, particularly if the bird has been severely ill, changes may be visible to the naked eye, which enable a diagnosis to be made.
More commonly, however, it becomes necessary to collect tissue samples during the autopsy and, after fixing these in formalin, forward them to an avian pathologist for evaluation to reach a diagnosis. Because we are in the realm of viruses, severe infections and other problems, the news is not always what we want to hear. At least, however, we then do know the exact nature of the problem and the correct therapeutic steps that need to be taken, together with the correction of any associated management flaws.
Treatment trial Some vets advocate a treatment trial as a diagnostic test. I believe that it is always better to establish the diagnosis, or at least make an effort to do so, before going down this road. I advise fanciers against jumping to this step a little too quickly. As medications given inappropriately have the potential to make the birds worse, this should always be done under veterinary supervision. All too often, I see teams with a minor problem become teams with a major problem, through misuse or overuse of medication by an excessively zealous owner. The treatment trial can occasionally, however, be a useful method of diagnosing a problem ‘through the back door’. An example might be where a number of birds in the team are gulping, and we see a response to four days on canker medication.
Grain Sending grain in for testing can also sometimes be a good idea. Grain is examined visually to assess quality and problems such as weevil contamination. It is then usually tested for fungal and sometimes bacterial contamination.
A teaspoon of each grain (if purchased separately) or a dessertspoon of the mix used should be placed in similar containers to those used for droppings, and mailed to the clinic. Some clinics will send you sterile bags for this purpose. Depending on the type of test involved, results are usually available in two to seven days.
Use the technology More and more fanciers email digital images and movies from their smart phones and digital cameras with macro abilities, to the clinic. Being able to see lesions and ‘walk through’ a loft and observe behaviour is extremely useful for your veterinarian. Your vet may suggest sending such images. As they say, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. It is a good idea to try to capture images that clearly illustrate a problem and have these available to send. For most problems samples are still required, but this is another way you can help your vet to help you.
In conclusion Doing tests takes the guesswork out of treating your birds. Fanciers often ring saying their friends said their problem could be this or that, while another friend said he should try a particular treatment. Following up on these guesses or trying these suggestions rarely works and just wastes time. Even if the birds appear to improve, it is not really known what caused the problem and if you don’t know what caused it, you don’t know what to do to stop it occurring again. There are really no excuses for not doing accurate tests on your birds. Submitting droppings, a canker pouch and a drop of blood through the post to your vet enables him or her to test your birds for the common diseases and make real suggestions to improve their health. Fanciers should consider including the cost of several such health profiles throughout the racing season as part of the inherent cost of keeping a race team healthy and in race form throughout the season.