Being too Careful

It is often been said that the off-season period is when the next year's races are won and lost and there is no doubt that the foundations for a good racing season begin here. Many important steps must be taken in preparation for the hard racing which is to follow. Rest, good care, proper food, vaccinations, strict selection, lack of overcrowding, good loft ventilation etc. are just some of the essentials of a good preparation.

It is also generally accepted that hygiene in a pigeon loft is of the utmost importance. And, by and large, no-one should really have an argument with that statement. But there are grades of hygiene and it really depends on one's definition or understanding of the concept. Furthermore I believe that it is important to recognize that different periods of the year require different levels of hygiene.

Hygiene, the dictionary tells us, is the 'science of health or the practice of maintaining health, especially by cleanliness'. That again is very wide statement as cleanliness can mean lots of different things to different people. However, I'm drifting into semantics – interesting to some but, in the main, irrelevant to the subject of this article. So what is this all leading up to? Let me begin at the beginning.

When we look at the racing pigeon's year, there are three definite periods or seasons, each revolving around just one purpose, pigeon racing? These periods are; the off-season, i.e. the period immediately following the racing season during which moulting occurs, the pre-race season during which preparation for the racing period are made and the racing season. (These seasons may differ slightly in countries other than South Africa but the principles remain the same.) And our standard of hygiene differs for each one.

The off-season:

During this time moulting occurs and this is also the time that newly-bred young birds are introduced into the loft. I believe that this is a crucial time for the youngsters. According to my system, they have not, up until this time received any medication. And they will remain so – medicine-free for as long as possible. But, to be able to avoid unnecessary treatment, the management of the pigeons must at all times be faultless.

Medical care at this time consists of vaccination against Paramyxo and Pox viruses. It is advisable that the vaccination against paramyxo is carried out as soon as possible i.e. immediately after weaning and that a booster shot is given four weeks later. This procedure is essential, it must be done. The advent of circovirus infection in young birds makes it important that the vaccine is given ASAP. Any pigeons intended for one-race lofts are preferably vaccinated at least once two to three weeks before being moved to the loft.

These establishments receive young birds from all over, which procedure favours the introduction of circovirus. This is sure to occur at one time or other and as we know, circovirus destroys the immune system of the pigeon making it susceptible to a host of infections which include paramyxo, adenovirus, E coli, paratyphoid (Salmonella) and others.

In recent years I have advocated using a vaccine which contains immunogens to both paramyxo and adenoviruses of chickens, reasoning that this may go some way to protecting our birds against the pigeon variants of the diseases. Should the birds then contract circovirus infection they will at least have some resistance to paramyxo and adeno, as circovirus attacks the immune system by destroying the cells that make the antibodies, not affecting the antibodies already present.

Parasites, both internal and external are also strictly controlled. The pigeons do not form immunity to worms, mites, lice or pigeon flies which need to be eradicated when they appear.

Worms – The presence of roundworms can debilitate youngsters to the extent that they cannot grow properly or in case of severe infestation, cause disease and even death. Hairworms, on the other hand, can, in addition to their devastating effect on youngsters, cause the death of adult pigeons. Tapeworms usually do not cause serious disease but, besides the debilitating effect by robbing the pigeon of nutrients, they can cause minor damage to the bowel lining which facilitates the entry of E coli and other germs into the body. Other worms are not commonly found in pigeons but when they occur special treatment is recommended.

The presence of External parasites is a reflection of the health care of the pigeons. Lice and mites are not involved in any disease processes and such do not constitute a health risk for the pigeons. They are merely an indication that the birds are not well-cared for. Pigeon flies however, are different. They are carriers of and can transmit the Pseudomalaria parasite, Haemoproteus columbae, of pigeons. Though infection with this parasite does not kill or make the pigeons very ill, it is still dangerous because of its insidious nature. It is a typical erosion disease which affects their racing performance by causing fever and destroying the red blood cells. Affected pigeons do not have any stamina, are slow and easily lost on hard races.

No other treatments are routinely given during this time. Obviously should there be an outbreak of any specific disease it must receive attention, irrespective of whether it means isolation of sick pigeons, treatment of the birds or additional vaccinations.

The major importance of this period is that it is recognized that the young pigeons are now in a developmental phase. During this time they grow strongly, are allowed to fly outside to both, learn to know the surrounding countryside and to receive the necessary exercise, whilst building their muscles in the process. In this developmental phase they must also be allowed to gain as much natural immunity as possible. This is achieved by exposure to organisms that occur naturally in their environment, which brings hygiene into debate. How much cleanliness is good or necessary?

To begin, our primary objective should be that the pigeons must be healthy. Good management will see to it that the correct food and grit, vitamins, right loft density, probiotics, lemon juice or ACV, brewer's yeast etc. is given regularly. Secondly comes the important task that to be able to withstand future invasions by the ever-present germs, the pigeons must build as strong an immunity as possible. The trick of keeping the birds healthy and, at the same time, reducing to an absolute minimum the amount of medicine given to them, is a fine balance but it is the one that eventually brings results. Nothing is gained if our birds look the picture of health in the off-season due to regular routine medication but fail to perform and lack in health when the races begin.

There must therefore be a very delicate balance between enough exposure to germs and too much exposure. However at this time, the pigeons are not under the stress of training or racing and their immune systems can work at full capacity. Please recognize that the success of the immune reaction is to a large extent dependent on the correct dietary intake. Therefore, to skimp on food at this time, especially proteins, is doing the pigeons – and yourself – no favours.

At the present time we are able to play the balancing act with exposure to germs much better than in previous years because, should something go wrong, we have the backing of very effective antibiotics and other drugs. However, to maintain efficiency of these drugs, they must not be used at every turn or for the wrong reasons. Fanciers who follow my writings will know that I am very strict about the non-use of these drugs during the non-racing period.

When the pigeons are in the racing season, however, we want them as well as possible and not fighting off bugs at that time. Then we keep our lofts scrupulously clean with grid floors if possible.

What we need to do now, is to institute a programme of regular exposure. We begin with canker, caused by Trichomoniasis germs. We did not medicate the stock birds before breeding began and we did not medicate them whilst breeding or rearing. Nor did we treat the youngsters on weaning. (I realize that it has become standard practice in some lofts to dose a canker tablet on rearing, but I frown on it and disapprove of the practice.) Neither are we going to treat them now, in their developmental phase. I believe that the pigeons at this time of the year are relatively stress-free and that they must be able to withstand an attack of canker. Should one or two youngsters become ill at this time it means that their immune systems are not as strong as they should be.

For the sake of all, such youngsters are better removed from the racing team. The history of their parents should also be examined to ascertain whether or not they have a hereditary weakness. If so, such birds should also be removed or at least looked at circumspectly. (The situation that arises if a particularly virulent strain of any germ should enter the loft and affect a number of pigeons is different. The whole loft should then be treated in an effort to kill the offending pathogen.) The first time these young pigeons are treated is their preparatory season leading up to races. This usually begins about 6 weeks before the first race.

Many different bacteria inhabit a pigeon loft. They are found in the dust and the droppings and in spite of our best intentions, land in the feeding troughs and drinking water, from where they enter the pigeons' alimentary canals. Airborne germs are inhaled by the birds.

In the off-season, when the birds are not actively racing, this should be a concern. What we want now, is exposure; to as many organisms and as big a variety as possible. To further enhance this contact, the pigeons should be permanently on a solid floor exposed to the droppings of healthy birds. I actually would like to see that the floor, except for the accumulated droppings under the perches, is not cleaned at all during this period.

The system has the added advantage in that addition to the low-grade contact with many organisms, the birds take in large numbers of good bacteria. These are natural probiotics. It is of course essential that the loft is bone dry at all times and that, as indicated above, worms and pigeon flies are eliminated and that the necessary vaccinations are done in time.

The supply of drinking water is handled in a like manner and one need not become concerned if a dropping or two should land in the drinking bowl. There is a limit to doing this of course but while the drinking water is still relatively clean the half-empty bowl may simply be topped up.

So strongly do I feel about the unnecessary use of disinfectants, antibiotics, protozoicides and other drugs, that I recommend that fanciers develop a more laid-back approach to their pigeons' health during this phase. Do not clean out and disinfect the loft so often.

Do not treat the pigeons unnecessarily. Individual pigeons that appear unthrifty for a few days, are merely removed from the loft, observed and allowed to recover naturally. If necessary, individual treatment can be considered. These laid-back approaches are all used to stimulate the formation of immunity. The more a pigeon has to rely on his own systems to fight invading germs and the bigger the challenge mounted by the invaders, the more solid the immunity to those germs becomes.

All this is especially true in the drier parts of the country. Germs thrive in moist or humid conditions and during times of tropical heat and humidity, diseases can become rife. Overcrowding at this time is doubly serious, as it increases humidity and adds to the stress. (Good ventilation and strict control of the number of pigeons are extremely important in these regions.) In the warmer, drier parts, the air is usually so dry that any moist is sucked from the droppings immediately and germs do not thrive. Controlled exposure in these areas is easy and safer. But as elsewhere, strict control of the population density, though often overlooked, is essential.

May I stress again the danger of introducing young birds from strange lofts? They bring with them a 'zoo of new germs' as it was once described by Dr Gordon Chalmers, one's pigeons do not always have immunity to these germs. Neither do the new introductions have immunity to the resident germs in one's own loft. The more youngsters you bring in, the more the risk of introducing a virulent germ and creating disease in your loft increases.

Preparatory period:

This is the time during which the pigeons are prepared for the racing season. Any vaccinations that were omitted earlier are now done. Crop canker treatment is given for the first time and if deemed necessary a treatment against respiratory diseases is instituted. Likewise with coccidiosis treatment. The loft is now cleaned regularly and clean water is supplied daily.

Racing period:

This period sees a complete reversal of what we did during the off season. Now the loft is kept scrupulously clean. Scrapping out is done at least twice per day. Grid floors, though not essential, are good, desirable and effective. But many successful racers continue with a deep litter system, finding it to their advantage. Asked to compare the three systems, I would place the grid system as being the best, regular twice-daily cleaning our as second best and the deep litter system as third best.

The differences between them are small however and much depends on other factors that can play a role in each system. The individual circumstances of a fancier, especially the climate in his region, very often dictate what system will suit him best. When using a grid floor, for example, it is imperative that the space below is sealed off from possible draught-producing wind that the accumulated droppings are allowed to dry out to prevent excessive mould growth and that water is kept away from the mounds of faeces. Conversely a deep litter system helps to keep the temperature within the loft more constant.

If at all possible I would like to see that cleaning every two or three days or once per week, is totally avoided. One loses the advantages of both regular daily cleaning and the deep litter systems. Cleaning every three days or once a week has no advantages of its own except time saving and where time is a problem, grids or deep litter are recommended.

The water bowls are regularly cleaned with Jik or a similar disinfectant and kept permanently filled with fresh water, which is changed as often as possible. Only one rule, though adapted, remains and that is that antibiotics and like substances are used as little as possible. During this period however, in contrast to the off season, we will use antibiotics, protozoicides and other anti-infective drugs when we need to, because the time for allowing a natural build-up of immunity, is over.

During the racing period, besides the increased exposure to germs in the racing baskets, the pigeons are under mild stress when training and moderate to very severe stress when racing. This has no effect of lowering their immune response and we must assist the pigeons in their fight against disease. To this end we will use vitamins, minerals, additives and when necessary, antibiotics and other drugs. Both for the purpose of getting the pigeons healthy but also for getting them healthy as soon as possible. Our primary purpose after all is to race pigeons and regardless of what else is done, pigeons cannot race if their health is at all suspect.

By Dr Wim Peters

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