Making the most of your avian vet
“Do you like my tie?”

By Dr Colin Walker BSc, BVSc, MRCVS, MACVSc (Avian health)

Many fanciers live a long way from an avian vet and even those who live close by can find it hard to physically find the time to get to the vet. However from the vet’s point of view it’s virtually impossible to make an accurate diagnosis and therefore give real advice that is going to help the fancier without having a pigeon or samples presented for testing.

Sometimes fanciers ring or email 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 have I got 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”.

A real diagnosis enables accurate and correct advice and also enables the development of an understanding of the problem so that measures can be taken to prevent the problem occurring again. And so how does a fancier who cannot get to an avian vet get an accurate diagnosis? The answer is to submit the correct samples from a distance and these days it is not that hard. Submitted samples can include droppings, a canker pouch, a Chlamydia test, and dead or live birds.

The most important and common diseases in pigeons are canker, coccidiosis, Circo virus, worms and respiratory infection. These days all can be diagnosed from submitted samples. And so how is this done?

1. Coccidiosis and Worms – To diagnose these problems dropping 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 number) and collect 6-10 droppings from different perches (so they are from different birds) into a single water tight 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 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.

2. Canker – Wet canker is the most common and serious disease of racing pigeons 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. Essentially these are small plastic bags with a clip seal full of a nutrient solution that keeps the canker organisms alive. Simply get a clean cotton bud and wipe it around the inside of a pigeons 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 the droppings.

3. 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 3 things – a needle, a fine strip of blotting type 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 closed. This 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 birds 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 incredibly accurately checked for Chlamydia. (the Chlamydia DNA is checked for using a test called a PCR)
Doing this test means that if the birds are, for example, sneezing, reluctant to fly or panting after moderate exercise – signs that may or may not be due to respiratory infection – enables the fanciers to know whether his birds have a respiratory infection or not and will or will not benefit from a course of antibiotics. This test has the big advantage that other diseases in particular Circo and Herpes viruses can also be tested for off the same sample particularly in young birds.

Doing these tests takes the guess work out of treating your birds. Fanciers often ring saying their mates 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 what caused the problem is not really known and if you don’t know what caused it you don’t know what to do to stop it occurring again. These days there are no excuses for not doing accurate tests on your birds.
Submitting droppings, a canker pouch and a Chlamydia test through the post to your vet enables him to test your birds for the common diseases and make real suggestions to improve their health. Fanciers should include 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.

Australian fanciers wishing to have canker pouches and Chlamydia test kits mailed to them simple need to phone our clinic.

More serious diseases
More serious diseases require either live birds to be couriered to the clinic or dead birds to be sent to the clinic. Pigeons are not delicate birds and they do not die easily. If a bird dies at home it’s 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 4 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 in contact with the skin. Let the bird soak for 1-2 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 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.