In Victoria most youngsters are weaned between the beginning of November and the beginning of February. Most states, however, wean a bit earlier due to the timing of their race seasons and the weather. For all fanciers , no matter what exact month it occurs, weaning is an important time. Although when weaning babies, racing can seem a long time away it is obviously vital that the developing youngsters receive a good start to their careers in the racing loft.
During the post weaning time we don’t like to use much medication. It is essentially a matter of providing ongoing good care and letting the birds mature. When disease does appear it is usually as a result of some management or environmental flaw that places the developing young birds under stress.
If disease does appear it can be divided into 4 categories :
1/Canker. Young birds require exposure to canker as they mature in order to develop a natural immunity to it. Over treatment in the post weaning time means the birds don’t have the exposure they need, don’t develop a strong immunity and are therefore more vulnerable to wet canker flare ups with the inherent stresses of the upcoming race season. Fanciers will be familiar with the thick yellow scum that occurs in the throat of an affected youngster. If possible individual birds should be treated. In Australia, four different brands of tablets, each with a different active ingredient are available for individual bird treatment. Alternatively, the unwell youngster’s water can be medicated. In Australia there are two different drugs available as water soluble powders. It is important, however, to ensure that the unwell youngster is still able to drink. The group of youngsters, as a whole, should only be treated if more than 10% of youngsters are showing signs. This however is only likely to be necessary if the group of youngsters is under some stress. They will respond poorly to any medication unless this stress is identified and corrected. Do also bear in mind that not all yellow scum in the mouth is due to canker – many viral infections in particular, cause this to form. Also not all birds with canker will have yellow scum. Some for example may just have slow crops.
2/Respiratory signs. In young birds, a respiratory infection usually appears as either a dirty cere or a ‘one eye cold’. Sneezing is a good indication of respiratory infection in young pigeons (because it indicates that something is irritating the sinuses) but this can occur with very mild disease and during the post weaning time is not an indication for treatment. Most young bird respiratory infections are primarily due to an intracellular bacteria called Chlamydia , but are often complicated by concurrent Mycoplasmal and bacterial infections. The usual antibiotic used to treat respiratory infection in young pigeons is called doxycycline, although others are available. The same basic principles that apply to canker treatment apply to respiratory infection. Birds should only be treated if the infection progresses to the stage where it is compromising their development. Flock treatments should be avoided if possible, with treatment focused on treating individuals. We try and let the birds have some exposure to the various organisms in order to stimulate the development of a natural immunity. Severely affected youngsters can have trouble looking after themselves in the loft and should be separated. Mildly affected birds are left in the loft. Unwell birds are often treated with doxycycline 25mg once daily (in tablet form). If more cases are developing every day, or more than 10% of youngsters are affected the flock can be given doxycycline 12% (e.g. Doxyvet) 3g/2L of water. However, in this situation it is likely that there is some underlying management or environmental flaw which will need to be corrected to prevent ongoing problems. Some fanciers ring me concerned that their birds may have respiratory infection because there appears to be an increased amount of mucous in the throat. I personally find the presence of mucus in the throat an unreliable indicator of respiratory infection in young pigeons. All pigeons have approximately 1.5ml of mucus in the throat all the time. The level of mucus may increase with respiratory infection but this is difficult to quantify. Similarly, I am cautious in diagnosing respiratory infection if the birds pant after exercise. Birds with respiratory disease may pant excessively but this is affected by too many other factors, such as the stage of the moult, level of fitness and heat of the day, to be a reliable indicator.
3/Bowel signs. Look for discolored droppings with a higher than normal fluid content. Affected youngsters are usually quiet and underweight. In days gone by, the three most common causes were coccidia, ‘thrush’ and bacteria such as E.coli and Salmonella although worms were a problem in some lofts. These day, however, the appearance of wet droppings is often the initial indicator of either a Rota, PMV or other viral infection. Microscopic examination of a faecal smear is a good diagnostic starting point to determine the problem. If coccidia is involved, then the entire group of youngsters can be given toltrazuril (e.g. Toltravet) 25mg/ml, 5ml/1L on treatment days 1, 2, 8 and 9). This does not interfere with developing immunity. ‘Thrush’ can usually be successfully treated with probiotics. Treatment of bacterial infections is more complex and involves the use of antibiotics, disinfection and sometimes vaccines. These problems are rarely however simply fixed with drugs. Their presence can reflect loft stresses, which will need to be corrected to stop the ongoing need for medication.
4/Very sick or dying youngsters. Here affected birds are fluffed up, reluctant to move and are often underweight, with a reduced appetite. The diseases mentioned earlier can, in their most severe forms, appear like this and usually testing for these is done initially. However, the generalised form of paratyphoid, Aspergillus (a fungus that affects the respiratory system) and the viral diseases Herpes virus, Adeno virus, PMV, Rota and Circo virus, must be considered. Often, one or more birds need to be submitted for autopsy and the relevant tissues and other samples submitted for examination by an avian pathologist or laboratory. It is worth noting however that the signs displayed by pigeons with both PMV and Rota are changing. In particular with PMV when it first got into Australia in 2011 the main symptom was that the birds just started dying. These days most birds, including non- vaccinated youngsters have some immunity. This modifies the severity of the symptoms. Often birds with PMV will drink a lot, have big fluid filled crops and produce wet droppings made up, not of diarrhea, but dilute urine, that appear as large wet patches on the loft floor. In some situations not many birds die. However PMV remains the most common cause of significant mortality in pigeons. Occasionally we still see mortality rates of over 80 %. Whenever more than 10 % of a group of pigeons die PMV should be suspected.
It is worth mentioning the inherent risks associated with squeaker sales. I think it is very fool hardy to buy youngsters from a sale and bring them home to your racing loft unless your youngsters are vaccinated.
No health problem can be effectively resolved if there are ongoing stresses affecting young pigeons. Many normal features of the young pigeons’ existence, such as moulting and establishing their perch in a new loft, not to mention persistent falcon or hawk attack provide unavoidable stress. Most growing pigeons can tolerate a single stress but, when stresses start to overlap, opportunistic infection can take advantage of the birds’ weakened immune system and the youngsters can become sick. In addition, in some areas the weather during these months is changeable and humid: conditions that favour the spread of disease.
Overlapping stresses in the form of environmental or management flaws, or failure to control primary diseases such as parasitism, can trigger a disease outbreak. Occasionally, however, in the best lofts under good managers, disease will occur despite good control of young birds’ stresses.
Ways that fanciers can minimise stress in their young birds include:
Avoiding overcrowding. Ideally, no more than 25 birds in a two-cubic-metre section.
Providing a seed mixture of good quality and in adequate quantity, given at regular intervals. The seed should be clean, free of dusts and moulds, and contain sufficient levels of protein for growth and moulting and be given in sufficient quantity. I work with a basic mix of about 35% dun peas, 18% safflower, 20% corn, 12% milo, 10% wheat and 5% small seeds.
Providing grit and a pink mineral.- Grit should always be in front of the growing youngster. It contains the calcium that is vital for the formation of a healthy skeleton. A pigeon is independent at four weeks, and can reproduce at six months. This is analogous to a human being full-grown at five months of age and sexually mature at two and a half years. With such a phenomenal growth rate,
nothing must be lacking. The bones are genetically programmed to increase in size and if calcium is lacking they will not be as strong as they should be. Pink minerals provide not only calcium but also a range of vitamins and minerals. Regular use of a water-soluble multivitamin is also useful. No seed blend, no matter how many different seeds are used or in what proportion can supply all of the vitamins ,minerals and amino acids required in a complete diet. Racing pigeons are not given the opportunity to forage over wide areas for extended times and so the fancier must supply all necessary nutrients. Providing a complete vitamin, mineral, amino acid supplement in the water for one or two days per week just makes good sense. Fanciers do however need to be careful when selecting the brand of pink minerals and vitamins they use. The manufacture of these is poorly regulated. Some are produced by back yard operators with no qualifications. An example is a brand of pink mineral that I see advertised which contains probiotics. This is a nonsense. There are only 2 probiotic products registered for use in pigeons in Australia . These are the Australian Pigeon Company’s “Probac” and Vetafarm’s “Probotic”. Probiotic bacteria are fragile. They are supplied in sealed jars that must be kept below 30C. My advice when using them is to add them to the drinker just before calling the birds in from exercise and feeding so that the birds will go to the drinker straight away and drink them. Similarly, if applying to the food, they are added freshly to the grain immediately prior to feeding. The idea that they can be put into a dry salt containing powder such as a pink mineral, be stored for months and then be alive and beneficial is just silly. Salts are used to kill bacteria and the fragile bacteria in probiotics are also killed by exposure to light, heat and just time. How can something that has been stored is a salty powder and then put out in an open container on a loft floor indefinitely be affective? That is why the product is unable to be registered. Fanciers are just wasting their money. Fanciers are encouraged to use products that are registered in Australia from veterinary companies.
Enabling adequate rest periods. The young bird must develop a bond with the loft and a perch within it, and must feel secure when there. People tell me that pigeons get used to anything, such as backyard dogs, incinerators, and kids playing directly in front of the loft, but I think, drawing an analogy with some people that live on a busy road, that just because they get used to it does not mean they like it.
Providing a good loft. Essentially, a pigeon loft must be dry without being dusty and provide adequate ventilation without exposing the birds to extremes of heat and cold.
Keeping the loft clean. Regular cleaning removes germs and provides a healthier environment.
Keeping groups of young birds together. Young birds will form groups within the loft as part of their basic flocking instinct. Fanciers may note that youngsters weaned on the same day may still be sharing the same section within the loft as adults. Young birds are easily intimidated by older birds.
Controlling internal and external parasites. Both internal and external parasites drain the body of nutrition that would otherwise be available to the growing youngster. These days most people are familiar with medications such as moxidectin. Moxidectin 2mg/ml placed in the drinking water at the rate of 5ml/L kills round and hair worms as well as feather mites. Individual birds can be given ¼ /ml direct to the beak. Moxidectin does not kill lice, however, if taken orally (because unlike mites that feed off blood, lice live off feather debris and dandruff). Alternatively to kill all external parasites moxidectin can be placed in a bath at 1/10 the oral dose ie ½ ml /L . This method is safe, easy and effective. Permethrin sprays are also useful to eradicate external parasites. These are purchased as a concentrate, diluted down into a spray bottle and are then ideal to spray new birds prior to introduction to the loft.
Correct timing of PMV, Rota , Salmonella and pigeon pox vaccinations. The two constraining parameters for pigeon pox vaccination are the date racing starts and the age of the birds. Race programs in all Australian states are different. Pigeons should not be vaccinated closer than six weeks to the start of racing, as usually scabs are carried for –four to six weeks post-vaccination. Birds carrying these scabs are infectious and therefore ineligible for competition. Vaccination protocols were discussed extensively last month.
. Beware the overuse of drugs, which can interfere with the ongoing natural exposure of the developing pigeon to potentially infectious organisms. Incorrect use of drugs at this time may in fact render the team more vulnerable to disease.
Establishing a routine that is familiar to the young bird. Pigeons gain a lot of security from a familiar environment and predictable routine.
By doing what they can to minimise stress fanciers can dramatically decrease the chance of disease in young recently weaned pigeons. If disease does occur it is important that it is managed correctly. Fanciers with queries are welcome to call either the Australian Pigeon Company on 0450 400 034 or me directly on 0412 481 239.
Dr Colin Walker