There will always be unscrupulous competitors in any sport who try to gain an unfair advantage through the use of performance enhancing drugs. Fortunately, in the sport of pigeon racing, this remains a rare activity considered by only a very few. In pigeons, the principle drug abused in this way is cortisone, although others have also been tried.
Some may question the wisdom of providing this type of information here, but I believe that presenting accurate information is important if pigeon governing bodies are going to adequately and correctly regulate this unfortunate, but small, aspect of the sport.
Cortisone use in pigeons Cortisone is one of the body’s natural secretions. It is produced by two small glands called the adrenal glands that sit just in front of the kidneys. Cortisone is one of the body’s great regulators in that it is involved in controlling many of the body’s metabolic processes. The mechanism of cortisone production in the body is fascinating. As blood flows through a gland in the brain called the pituitary gland, the gland registers the level of cortisone present and then, via a hormone, tells the adrenal gland either to stop producing cortisone or to produce more, so that the body’s cortisone level is kept within a healthy range.
Cortisone is involved in a whole array of the body’s processes, including maintenance of normal fluid and electrolyte levels, sugar metabolism, bone, feather and skin growth, immune and inflammatory responses, appetite and sex drive, to name only a few. Abnormal levels of the substances that control the body’s processes lead to an imbalance, which confuses the body’s regulatory mechanisms, leading to health problems. Cortisone is no exception.
Effects of cortisone As most fanciers will be aware, it has become the practice of certain fliers, more so in some countries than others, to give their birds cortisone. Why would they do this? The reason is that, when we give cortisone and confuse the natural hormonal messages, some of the results can be useful for racing in the short term. These effects are: • Effect on moulting. Cortisone is one of the hormones involved in controlling the moult. If cortisone levels become high, the moult will stop. This has obvious benefits for young bird racing, where the birds can be raced with a full wing of nest flights. • Effect on inflammation. Cortisone has an anti-inflammatory effect. If cortisone levels rise, this inhibits the body’s normal inflammatory response and, to some extent, any soreness associated with it. This means that tiring race birds are more likely to fly on at speed. • Effect on ‘frame of mind’. Cortisone is a mood-altering drug. It promotes a general feeling of well-being. Youngsters on cortisone are described as being tireless, being happy to fly for extended periods around the loft, and taking well to any motivation system used.
Above: Applying cortisone eye drops to the eye of a young racing pigeon.
Right: Examples of cortisone eye drops.
The problem is that, in inducing these changes, we also get all the less desirable effects of cortisone overdose, which include suppression of the immune system leading to an increased vulnerability to disease, interference with the deposition of calcium in bones leading to the formation of a weak skeleton, and interference with growth generally, so that birds given cortisone, particularly early in life, cannot grow into normal strong pigeons.
Large amounts of cortisone, given suddenly, interfere with the normal body’s metabolic processes to such an extent that the birds become severely unwell. So, when giving cortisone, only small amounts must be given initially. The dose given is then gradually increased. In this way, as the level of artificial cortisone gradually rises, the pituitary gland, trying to keep a normal level, tells the adrenal gland over a period of time to gradually produce less and less of the body’s own natural cortisone. Slowly, a tolerance is built up to the artificial cortisone and, eventually, with continued supplementation, the cortisone level becomes higher and higher; much higher than it would be normally. Supplementation is then continued until there is sufficient cortisone in the body for the above effects to be seen.
A veterinarian can give a gradually increasing dose of cortisone to a pigeon by injection or tablet. However, these options are not readily available to fanciers, and so cortisone eye drops are used. When drops are placed in the eye, they flow down the tear duct into the back of the throat, where they are swallowed. Using the drop as the unit of measure, both the number of drops and frequency can be increased with time. For example, one drop may be placed in the eye every third day, before increasing to one drop every second day and then two drops every second day. Once the required threshold is passed and there is sufficient cortisone in the system, this dose is maintained for as long as the fancier wants to exert the effect, or the bird starts to become unwell with cortisone overdose (usually after about eight weeks).
If cortisone treatment is suddenly withdrawn, the birds also become severely unwell, and can die. This condition is called Addisons disease. Because the adrenal gland has not had to produce cortisone for a period of time during supplementation, it temporarily loses the ability to produce normal levels. This means that, if cortisone treatment is suddenly withdrawn, the blood level of cortisone will fall. The pituitary gland will register this and immediately tell the adrenal gland to produce a lot of cortisone. It cannot do this immediately, and so the cortisone level plummets, with the bird becoming unwell. This means that, in the same way that cortisone supplementation has to be gradually built up, it must also be gradually withdrawn.
Dangers of cortisone use Is cortisone such a bad thing? It could be argued that it is simply another drug that can be used to advantage in, say, the same way that canker drugs are used to lift performance in lofts with a wet canker problem. The counter argument is that the bird’s whole metabolism is generally disrupted, leading to general ill health after a relatively short period of time and only a few of the drug’s effects are of benefit to racing.
Cortisone compromises growth and predisposes the pigeon to disease. Cortisone directly suppresses the functioning of the immune system, making the growing youngster more vulnerable to health problems such as canker and eye colds. In the longer term, cortisone has serious effects on health and the bird’s quality of life. Medications like those for canker improve health, while cortisone, in the longer term, damages health. There are cases in the veterinary literature of pigeons dying after a single topical application of cortisone.
Monitoring cortisone use How is cortisone use monitored? Mature birds that are carrying baby nest flights or are behind in their body moult and are not on the darkness system, always make one suspicious. Laboratory tests used in horses and dogs to monitor cortisone levels in blood have been adapted to measure cortisone levels in droppings. Tamper-proof collection bags are supplied and a Federation official collects droppings from perches and the loft floor at random, in the owner’s presence. Several Australian metropolitan Federations have incorporated in their rules the right to collect droppings from members, if they feel it is appropriate.
Other doping agents Other drugs have been considered by certain fanciers as potential doping agents. These include the bronchodilators (for example, aminophylline) and various stimulants (such as caffeine, theophylline and theobromine). It is unlikely that these have any performance-enhancing capacity on the day of the race in pigeons. Although these drugs are not registered for use in birds, and therefore have not undergone the extensive testing that would reveal their pharmacodynamics (mode of action, excretion rate, etc.) in birds, we can extrapolate to some extent from their effect and actions in mammals.
What we do know is that other drugs, such as antibiotics, have to be given at higher doses to be effective in birds than in mammals, because birds, with their higher metabolic rates metabolise these drugs much more quickly. Racing pigeons leave their lofts and owner’s care on average 12–36 hours before the event. Drugs such as caffeine only persist in the body for up to five hours in a mammal. In a bird they are likely to persist for under half this time. This means that, by the time the birds are actually competing, medications such as these would have gone from the bird’s system and would not be exerting any effect.
The testing of this type of drug is problematic. The detection techniques that are used to test dog and horse blood have been adapted to test pigeon droppings. The level of any doping agent will be higher in droppings than in blood. This is because some of the drug is not absorbed after being given orally (and will therefore be passed unabsorbed in the digested food component of the dropping) and because the kidney concentrates and excretes body toxins (therefore leading to a higher level in the urine component of the droppings).
It is therefore important not to compare pigeon dropping drug levels with mammal blood levels. Also, blood is usually collected from horses and dogs soon after the event, and therefore gives a good indication of the level in the animal during competition. Pigeon droppings are often checked before the event. As the drugs are quickly metabolised, the levels in the bird during competition 12–36 hours later will be much lower. It is important that any results returned by a testing laboratory are fully and completely evaluated. A result that may seem high in a dropping sample 12–36 hours before a race may not indicate a ‘doping’ level during the event.
An additional point to consider when a fancier’s bird registers a positive test result (particularly for cortisone) is the possibility that his tested bird ingested vomited grain from another fancier’s doped bird in the race basket.
Further work needs to be done on the pharmacodymanics of these drugs in birds to establish accurately what does, in fact, represent a doping level in birds.