The use, actions and therapeutics of regulated medications prescribed by veterinarians is beyond doubt. The same cannot be said of all products made available to the fancier. Fanciers need to realistically consider claims being made by supplement suppliers and, if unsure, ask a veterinarian, nutritionist or pharmacist for an opinion. It is likely that some natural supplements are of benefit (for example, some of the herbs), some probably don’t do as much as their manufacturers claim but at least do no harm, while some that have been available in the past have since actually been shown to be poisonous (for example, colloidal silver).
Garlic Garlic, whose scientific name is Allium sativum, is a common plant used world-wide for food. Since ancient times, garlic has been used for a variety of human and animal ailments and problems. Its active agent is allicin which, with its breakdown products, produces its characteristic odour. When garlic cloves are crushed, allicin is produced by the action of enzymes on a pre-existing chemical known as alliin.
The anecdotal evidence that the juice of fresh cloves has health benefits is widespread, whereas information from modern commercial preparations such as powders, tablets and oils prepared by heat distillation, etc., is not as convincing. This is because the active ingredient is fragile and is often broken down during processing. It is the breakdown of alliin to allium that produces the characteristic odour, and there is a correlation between the odour and the level of active constituent. Potency of garlic to some extent, therefore, depends on pungency. Once garlic is dried into odour-free garlic or pills, it loses many of the properties that make it useful in health promotion. It is best to use either fresh juice from garlic cloves or, if an oil is used, its preparation must not involve any heating process, as this will result in loss of potency.
Scientific benefits Garlic has been used by pigeon fanciers for many decades and there is much anecdotal evidence as to its benefits, but the scientific benefits are not as well documented. Allicin is known to have antibacterial properties. It inhibits the growth of or kills approximately two dozen types of bacteria (including Salmonella) and at least 60 types of mould and yeast.
It contains the trace elements selenium and germanium. These minerals are important in the normal development of the immune system. It has been suggested that they boost the immune system of the pigeon by increasing its ability to fight disease-producing organisms of many kinds.
Garlic has been shown to have a stimulating effect on certain enzymes that are known to be effective in removing toxic substances from the body. Some people use the terms ‘blood purifier’ or ‘tissue purifier’. For a vet, it is hard to know just what people mean by these terms; however there are chemical compounds in garlic that appear to assist the body to detoxify, neutralise or eliminate poisonous substances. Garlic after a race may assist in the return to normal race condition.
Garlic supplementation There is much still to learn about garlic but, based on the knowledge to hand and the anecdotal experience of many fanciers, it seems that there may be some benefit in using garlic in the loft. Garlic can be used as a supplement in two ways: 1. As fresh juice squeezed into the drinker or on to the seed. Whole cloves should not be placed into the drinker as these quickly develop a biofilm over their surface and are then no different from any other decaying plant material in the water. 2. As an oil-based seed additive. Good quality garlic oil contains the juice of fresh garlic cloves in a base of one or more seed oils. It should not have undergone any heating processes in its preparation that are likely to affect its allicin content. Most garlic oils are added to the seed at the rate of ½–1ml per kilogram of grain, which moistens the seed and makes it look clean without it becoming ‘gluggy’. This method of supplementation has the advantage that the birds also get some nutritional benefit from the seed-oil base. There does not appear to be a toxic dose with garlic; that is, you cannot give too much. However, if it is over-supplemented, the concentration causes palatability problems, with the birds reluctant to take the seed or water. The use of herbs Some herbal preparations that are available to fanciers make fairly amazing claims that, at best, could be described as doubtful. Recently, however, evidence has started appearing in the veterinary literature that supplementation with certain herbs can be of benefit to birds. For example, chlorophyll has been shown to decrease crop emptying time in hand-raised cockatoos, dandelion and milk thistle have been shown to decrease cholesterol levels and help prevent fatty liver (a degenerative condition associated with primary liver disease and a high fat diet) in lorikeets. Echinacea, a derivative of the plant Augustifolia purpurea, has been shown to be an immune stimulant and may speed recovery in some cases of disease and in debilitated birds. Fennel tea extract has also been shown to shorten crop emptying time. Much of this evidence is still anecdotal, and we still have a lot to learn.
Some herbs contain high levels of important nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. These minerals are in a proteinated (or organic) form which enhances their uptake from the bowel. The vitamins are often in their precursor form. As the precursors are only converted to the active form and absorbed if the body actually needs them, there is little risk of an overdose. Dandelions are a good example here, containing high levels of vitamin A precursors and calcium.
The active ingredients of these selected herbs tend to be fairly fragile. Most herb extracts are dissolved into either alcohol or vinegar (an acid) and the resulting liquid is then offered for sale. It is doubtful that the ingredients would still be active after any length of time. Lactulose is a good base for herb extracts. Lactulose is a complex carbohydrate which does not react, even with prolonged storage, with the ingredients in the extracts. Lactulose is not absorbed from the bowel but, when acted on by the body’s digestive enzymes, is turned into acetic acid. This has the potential to lower the pH (that is, increase acidity) of the bowel and stomach which may be beneficial in itself.
Beetroot powder Beetroot powder is a supplement that has only recently been considered by pigeon keepers. Sold under the brand name "Stamox", it is available as a deep purple fully water-soluble powder and appears pleasant tasting to the birds. Initially I was a bit sceptical, but anecdotal and scientific evidence is appearing that the supplement may have benefits, and the science used to promote the product does seem reasonable. The product acts, among other ways, by dilating blood vessels, leading to an increase in blood supply to the working muscle, and increased energy release, with lower oxygen utilisation. This does seem to lead to a less tiring flight and the development of stamina and increased speed. The supplement is also a natural source of vitamins and amino acids.
Epsom salts Epsom salts is the common name for an electrolyte (or salt) combination, magnesium sulphate (MgSO4). It has been used by pigeon fanciers for many years to ‘clean the birds out’ and in some way promote health. When electrolytes or salts are given orally, fluid moves across the bowel wall to make the concentration of these the same on either side. This natural mechanism is a protective device that re-establishes normal salt concentrations in body fluids if dehydration occurs. With dehydration, body salts become concentrated and so, after drinking, fluid is quickly absorbed from the bowel into the body, diluting the body salts so that normal healthy levels are re-established.
When we give a concentrated salt solution, such as Epsom salts, to a healthy bird, the opposite happens. Fluid rushes from the body into the bowel, attempting to dilute the salts there. As a result, the bowel fills with fluid, in the process dehydrating the bird. The resultant watery dropping is made up of the healthy body’s normal fluid. Prolonged supplementation with concentrated salts leads to profound dehydration, irreversible kidney damage and death. This is why people and animals that drink seawater eventually die. It is a myth that the administration of a concentrated salt solution in some way cleans out the birds and, in fact, it moves away from what we are trying to achieve, in that it makes the birds deliberately unwell. It is likely that the birds of fanciers who extol its benefits do well despite what their owners have put them through. The use of such salt solutions should be discouraged. The use of acids in pigeons The addition of weak organic acids to the drinking water of pigeons is a common practice. Initially this may seem a little bit strange. However, if done correctly, it may be advantageous. One of the ways that the bowel protects itself from disease is through the maintenance of a weakly acidic environment. This is possible because many of the normal bacteria present in the bowel, such as lactobacillus, produce acids such as lactic acid. With stress, some bacteria are lost. Lactobacilli are some of the first bacteria to be lost. This means less acid is produced and bowel pH starts to rise.
Potential disease-causing organisms such as E.coli, Salmonella and yeast don’t survive well in an acidic environment and so the loss of this acidic environment creates a window of opportunity for these to become established and multiply. Anything that re-establishes the normal acidic environment quickly is thought to decrease the chances of disease. One way of potentially doing this is by adding weak acids to the birds’ drinking water.
There are dose rates available for acids such as hydrochloric acid; however, as these acids can be quite dangerous to handle, their use is not encouraged. There are two organic acids commonly used. One is acetic acid. This is available as apple cider vinegar at your local supermarket and the dose rate is 5ml per litre. Alternatively, citric acid can be used. This can be purchased as a white powder either from the chemist or supermarket. Here the usual dose used is 1 teaspoon (3g) to 6 litres of water. It is interesting that many of the older bird books recommend the use of acids, and suggest squeezing lemon juice or adding other sources of citric acid to the bird’s drinker. Some old secrets may still work well today.
Used correctly, acids can do the birds no harm. In theory fanciers can use them beneficially in a number of ways: 1. When a mild stress-induced disruption of bowel bacteria occurs, leading to an overgrowth of bacteria such as E.coli or yeast, weakly acidifying the drinking water may be a useful part of controlling the problem without the need to resort to ‘stronger’ medication such as antibiotics. 2. If fanciers experience predictable yeast or other bowel problems following stress; for example, following periods of cold damp weather in an open loft, then when these conditions occur they can put the acids in the water for one or more days in an attempt to prevent a problem. They could therefore be used as part of a health management program. With mild yeast or bacterial bowel upsets, the use of acids may result in the production of tight brown nutlike droppings with reduced odour, and a healthier looking bird. A failure to respond indicates a more serious problem and veterinary assistance may be required.
It is worth noting that one of the ways probiotics work is by helping to maintain the bowel’s weakly acidic environment. The ‘good’ bacteria in probiotics, once established in the bowel, however, not only produce organic acids but also preferentially occupy receptor sites that would otherwise be available to harmful bacteria. Probiotics also produce protective mucous layers and have other beneficial functions. Probiotics can therefore be expected to be a more effective treatment for minor bowel infections and also be more effective at maintaining bowel health generally, than acids alone.