The Development and Maintenance Of Race Fitness in the Racing Loft
By Dr. B.Sc. B.V.Sc. M.A.C.V.S (avian health)

The BHW welcomes Dr Colin Walker as a regular scribe through 2008. Dr Walker will be well known already to many UK fanciers through his book “The Flying Vet’s Pigeon Health and Management”. Dr Walker operates a bird-only veterinary clinic in Australia, where about half of all his clients are pigeon fanciers. He has raced pigeons himself for almost 40 years and is not only a veterinary surgeon, but, through postgraduate study and examination, has gained his membership in avian medicine and surgery. With his specialist veterinary knowledge and years of experience racing his own team, he is well-equipped to advise UK fanciers on health issues. In addition to his articles, Dr Walker will also be happy to answer specifically any questions from fanciers forwarded to him through the BHW. Questions and answers (but not the fancier’s name) will appear under a section titled “Ask the Vet” in the BHW.


I have just returned to Australia from the Blackpool show this year. One of the things that really struck me at the show was the huge array of supplements and medications available to the fancier.


Even as a qualified avian vet, it was easy to be overwhelmed by the huge array on offer. I visited every stand and questioned various retailers about their products. Frustratingly, many are of dubious value, many would do nothing, and I saw a couple that would do harm and one that has already been withdrawn from sale in Australia because it is downright poisonous.


At one stand, I asked how a particular supplement worked and was told that it cauterized the lining of the intestines so that they could absorb nutrients better. This is, of course, ridiculous. Another stand was selling a particular probiotic. I asked what the origin of the probiotic organism was and was told that they were from a chicken. In the same breath, I as told that the bacteria in chickens and pigeons were the same and therefore this was okay. Chickens have a well-developed caecum (and are therefore hind-gut fermenters) while pigeons don’t. Many of the bacteria carried by chickens are potential pathogens (i.e. capable of causing disease) in pigeons, particularly under stress, such as racing. Many vitamin and mineral preparations had levels not at the recommended doses. Even the retailer selling the poisonous product mentioned above had a small crowd around him and he sounded very knowledgeable but, quite frankly, he was just wrong. It was also frustrating to see potent prescription medications being sold without a prescription, proper labeling instructions, or any veterinary advice. These products all work, of course, but if used in the wrong way can do more harm than good. For example, it has been shown that clinically normal young pigeons regularly treated for canker and Salmonella actually develop an increased incidence of the disease with time. Pigeons with some viral diseases, such as Circo virus, if given the wrong antibiotic will actually get worse. At one veterinary stand, selling over-the-counter prescription medication, a young assistant, who was obviously simply repeating memorized statements (read ‘infallible avian expert’), told me that without giving a lot of medication 90% of pigeons would be lost and the sport of pigeon racing would be impossible! Well, you can believe that if you want to.


Of course, some supplements are of benefit but these really are the icing on the cake. There is no magic bullet and I feel that anyone who believes there is, is just showing their inexperience with pigeon racing. The initial starting point of attaining and maintaining race form in a competitive team is to provide an effective health program in which the common diseases (at least) are well controlled. Speaking to some fanciers, this was not the case and yet they were looking to buy that special supplement that would make them win. It is no good giving a human Olympian athlete a vitamin pill if he is trying to run with a broken toe.


The four main diseases to control through racing are wet canker, chlamydia-based respiratory infection, coccidia and worms. This article will discuss by far the most important of these, which is wet canker. .


What is wet canker?

Everyone who has kept pigeons for several years knows what wet canker is. The yellow material seen in the throat is regarded as the dry form of the disease. As pigeons mature, they develop a natural immunity to the canker organism and as a result their response to the canker organisms is modified. Young pigeons who have not yet developed a natural immunity, if they come under stress or are exposed to large numbers of the organisms, quickly develop a severe infection, with large numbers of the organisms present, and the characteristic yellow material becoming visible. Most young pigeons have a few trichs (canker organisms) in their throats. This is not a problem and in fact can be a benefit. This low-grade, ongoing exposure stimulates the development of a natural immunity in the young growing pigeon. As the pigeon becomes older and its natural immunity rises, it therefore becomes harder and harder for them to develop visible canker. But in pigeons of any age, there are always a few trich organisms present. The numbers tend to rise and fall, principally depending on what stress the birds are under and the level of exposure to the organism. In race baskets, canker organisms quickly spread through the drinker and the race itself provides no end of stress – time away from the loft, altered feeding patterns, exertion, exposure to predation, etc. Because of this, canker organisms fluctuate in the throat throughout the season. Usually nothing is visible to the fancier. In very high levels, the throat might appear a bit red or mucousy but this is very subjective. Often when testing birds with what appear to be good throats, high levels are found and vice versa. Trichomonads are primary parasites, taking nutrition that would otherwise be available to the birds and releasing toxins into their system. As trichomonad levels rise, race performance drops away. Fanciers who try to race teams with high trichomonad levels can expect to win fewer prizes and lose more birds. Birds with elevated trichomonad levels are said to have wet canker.


How to monitor wet canker?

By far, the best way to monitor this problem is to have some saliva from the back of the birds throat and top of the crop examined under a microscope. This is a simple test that takes a couple of minutes. Any vet with avian experience can do this for you and I met some very capable vets at Blackpool, including Lizzie Rigby and David Parsons. In Australia, most vets would not charge a consultation fee for this service. Certainly if you go in to a vet’s clinic with sick pigeons that are going to need an investigation that will take time, expect to pay a consultation fee, but in Australia many of our clients bring in a few birds every few weeks for the test (called a crop flush) and also ask to have the birds’ droppings examined (we will talk about this in a later article). In this situation, we just charge for the test, which in Australia is the equivalent of about 8 pounds. We do the test, give the fancier the result, offer some advice about the result, and expect to see them again in about 3 – 4 weeks.


The other way is to buy a microscope and do the test yourself. The test is easy to do, the organisms are easy to identify, and the technique is set out, with pictures, in my book. Even if you don’t use the microscope for anything else, I think being able to use the microscope to monitor trich numbers justifies its cost. I saw one stand at Blackpool selling microscopes that were ideal for this purpose and they also came with explanatory notes.


The advantage of monitoring is that drugs are used when they are needed and not given when a negative result is returned. Having said all that, if it not possible to have your birds checked by a vet and you have a microscope phobia and are reluctant to buy a microscope, then what to do?


What I can say is that at our clinic when we examine teams, if it has been more than 3 weeks since a canker treatment through the race season, we would expect to find elevated numbers of canker organisms in some birds in approximately 90% of teams. Given this incidence, I am quite happy to recommend regularly treating the birds against canker during racing, particularly now that we have such a range of safe preparations. Do bear in mind, as I said earlier, that canker organisms are a primary parasite that take nutrition from the birds and release toxins into the bird’s system that prematurely lead to fatigue. It is not possible for the birds to give of their best unless they are adequately controlled and that numbers rise and fall through the season depending on stress and exposure.


How to treat wet canker?

All effective drugs that treat canker fall into a group called the nitro-imidazoles. They are available under many different brands but if you look on the label they will contain one of the following five active ingredients. The five commonly used nitro-immidazoles are:

1. ronidazole – The brand I like is Turbosole.Turbosole comes as a water soluble powder The reason I like Turbosole is that ronidazole is at a 10% strength. Many other brands contain much lower levels of ronaidazole. Having the drug at a concentrated level means that therapeutic levels are quickly achieved and the drug therefore works quickly. Ronidazole works very quickly and at the same time is quickly cleared from the body. This means that if a pigeon drinks Turbosole , the drug starts working within hours and at the same time when it stops, within a day all of the medication is out of the it’s system. Treatment courses of 2 – 3days are effective with most infections. This means that if a team is treated Monday and Tuesday and if necessary also Wednesday, then the birds can be basketed on Thursday or Friday night with no drug in them. In the absence of testing, I recommend treating for 2 -3 days every 2 – 3 weeks during racing. With my own team, I treat Monday and Tuesday every second week.

2. Metronidazole – Commonly sold as Flagyl tablets or liquid. Metronidazole works quickly and a single dose lasts 24 hours. With small teams, birds can be given a quarter of a 200-mg table once daily for 2 – 3 days as an effective treatment. Flagyl liquid is very sugary and aromatic and therefore not very palatable for the birds. For this reason, I rarely recommend it.

3. Secnidazole – Secnidazole is now available as a tablet combined with ronidazole. The birds are given 1 tablet daily for 2 days. Secnidazole is long-acting and a single dose stays in the body several days. Combining it with the ronidazole in a tablet is an excellent idea. The ronidazole starts to work straight away but within a day is gone from the system, just as the secnidazole starts to kick in. The secnidazole then exerts its action for several days. This means that you get a quick knockdown but also a protracted effect with a single treatment.

4. Carnidazole – Available as Spartrix tablets. This is a longer-acting preparation. It takes about 24 hours to start to kill the trichs but then exerts its effect for several days. It is useful for treating birds earlier in the week and when teams are sufficiently small to make individual dosing practical.

5. Dimetridazole – Available under a number of different brand names but the most common one is Emtryl. Emtryl is the one to be careful of in this group of drugs. It is effective at killing trichomonads but has a narrow safety margin and in overdose is toxic. The usual dose is 1 teaspoon (3 g) to 4 – 8 litres of drinking water. I start at a dose of 1 teaspoon to 6 litres but if it is hot I make the solution more dilute. In overdose, the birds become giddy and drunk (reversible if the drug is withdrawn) and with continued exposure some will die. Dimetridazole interferes with sperm production in the cocks for about 6 weeks and therefore should never be used before or during breeding. Why use it? When used correctly, it is an effective anti-canker drug and some canker strains that have developed resistance to other medications are still sensitive to this.


Even though you may be regularly treating for wet canker, e.g. 2 – 3 days every 2 – 3 weeks, you cannot guarantee that any particular drug is killing your particular canker strain. Resistance to all these drugs is seen. It is a good idea to have occasional crop flushes done, even if treating regularly, to ensure the drug is doing its job. Failing that, swapping from one drug to another periodically,eg Turbosole for three treatments and then one Spatrix treatment, and then back to Turbosole, often heads off the development of any resistance.


Basically, the way we approach canker is – avoid treating young pigeons unless the disease actually makes them sick. If we find a few trichs in the crop flush of a young pigeon, we would elect no treatment. Let them have the exposure they need to develop their natural immunity. Treating healthy young pigeons serves no purpose and simply interrupts this exposure and delays the development of a natural immunity. Once racing starts, it is however a completely different ball game. Having given the birds as long as possible to develop their natural immunity, we must ensure that birds going to the races have no trichs present, otherwise they simply can’t give of their bext. This is ideally done through monitoring and treating when identified or alternatively treating peridocally in an appropriate prophylactic, ie preventative, way as outlined.