Building up natural resistance with our racing pigeons.

Posted on 23/07/2018, Author: pitts

Our pigeon sport has undergone a huge development in the last 20 years, especially the distance of the races and their intensity has increased enormously. Pigeons with 6000 prize kilometers are no longer an exception, a phenomenon that was considered impossible 20 years ago. Because of this high intensity of racing, the pigeons are also under more pressure and the risk of infections is much greater. It is therefore normal that one should help them at a given moment. But are we not going too far in that lately? We all agree that the use of antibiotics with moments takes on dramatic proportions. Veterinarians who offer "4 in 1 pots" or a "4 weeks system" are still more the rule than the exception. Shooting with a cannon on a mosquito, it has little to do with pigeon medicine. The result is therefore a huge resistance to these antibiotics and because of this, fanciers have to use more and more antibiotics, stronger antibiotics and the treatments have to be sustained longer for the same result. We also often see problems in breeding. Lofts that have a lot of problems even when rearing their youngsters and then have to resort to antibiotics. And yes, in recent years we have sometimes seen some dramatic consequences. Lofts that do not get a young pigeon grow properly. The result, a total sale, preferably abroad. But is there a healthy balance? Can we make our pigeons stronger, can we increase the natural resistance? We were looking it up for you.

Immune System

To better understand natural resistance, we first need to gain an insight into the immune system of our pigeons. First and foremost you have a split between the non-specific and the specific immune system. The non-specific system is, as it were, the first line of defense. It consists of a large number of defense mechanisms that protect the pigeon body from bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc. An important factor in this is the cytokines. In addition, you have "the complement cascade system", which is a succession of chemical reactions that ensure that the attaching of antibodies and the secretion of phagocytic cells proceeds more smoothly. They are small proteins that are present in the blood and produced in the liver that play a crucial role in this system. A well-functioning liver is therefore of fundamental importance, but we will come back to that later. Of course also the white blood cells or also called leukocytes. Also the "antigen presentation" is part of the non-specific defense and crucial for the specific defense we discuss below. In addition, we of course have a number of natural barriers in the pigeon body, such as the slimy cells with the throat hair epithelium in the airways, which must ensure that intruders stay outside. The specific defense of pigeons also works with B cells, T cells and humoral immunity. Specific bacteria or viruses are attacked by anti-bodies and excreted from the body. For all these cells of the immune system, a number of places are crucial. For example, the thymus is very important in the formation of the T cells and the bursa fabrica for the B cells. In addition, of course, the bone marrow and spleen are extremely important. The lymph system also plays a major role in this. Pigeons do not have lymph nodes, but they have important lymphoid tissue that is located near the intestines and airways. This lymphoid tissue contains a large amount of plasma cells and anti-bodies, crucial in the natural resistance.


The development of the immune system happens with our racing pigeons already in the embryonic phase, so in the egg. It has been scientifically proven that animals that became infected in the egg also clearly developed smaller bursa fabrica and were therefore able to produce fewer antibodies. The first months of life are also extremely important in the development of the immune system. That is why it is important that during these months the pigeons are optimally cared for and, above all, that they have sufficient vitamins, minerals and nutrients. Beware this does not mean that by definition they can not go through illness, on the contrary even. The immune system is in full development so it should be part of it, but as a fancier you should not take too much action and especially pay attention to the use of antibiotics or other medication. These can counteract the development of the immune system, but we will come back to that further.


The first thing you should be aware of when we speak of natural resistance is the fact that you have to be careful that the bacterium does not become stronger than the individual. I explain myself further. Bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics but can also become resistant to the natural resistance of the pigeon itself. They adapt so that they can survive better. The same also applies to viruses. They can easily change and try to keep themselves going. That is why it is very important that you try to get the pigeon body to overcome the disease itself, to have your own antibodies built to fight against viruses and bacteria from outside. Antibiotics should therefore not be used too quickly, only if it is really necessary and then give the cure long enough. By constantly giving short antibiotics, you inhibit your own immune system, the pigeon body does not get enough time to suppress the intruders and make antibodies. These antibodies are nevertheless crucial for killing the germs, but their memory cells are also extremely important in order to get the pigeon body to act quickly in the next infection and still get enough antibodies on the spot. In addition, too many antibiotics work on the resistance of the bacterium itself, so that both the bacteria become stronger and the body becomes weaker to suppress such infections in the future. The word slowly heal can certainly be in place for youngsters and can help to sharpen the natural resistance. Everything depends of course on the time at which this happens, whether or not in the season, whether or not during major races etc ... The message is to not  always go to the antibiotic pots.


Whether or not it is sufficient to produce antibodies, or to have a sufficiently strong immune system, is to a large extent fixed in the genes of a pigeon. In plants this has already been proven thousands of times and through genetic manipulation one puts a lot of effort into this, to grow plants that have sufficient resistance to control insects or parasites and thus have to use fewer insecticides. Now we can do this with pigeons. In fact, we are always working on a form of genetic manipulation in our breeding program. We try to breed and cross, to breed pigeons that find their way home faster, pigeons that fly faster. Now through this same breeding program we can breed pigeons that are stronger against external infections. It is of course the art and the great challenge of every fancier to find a healthy balance in this and more and more people lose sight of the latter. Pigeon enthusiasts often only have an eye for the performances, which sometimes means forgetting the part natural resistance. Pigeons that perform well but quickly become ill, these are often, often too often, helped with antibiotics or other medications. This is often only a short-term solution. If you continue to breed with this type of specimen, you will lose the battle over time. As we said, as a pigeon fancier you have to find the right mix between performance and resistance. You sometimes have to dare to select purely on health. A pigeon that might perform well but too often is ill, too often needs antibiotics, this kind of pigeons should be dared to be excluded from the breeding program. But also the whole line must be monitored carefully. On the other hand, it is also important to introduce a strict selection of natural resistance from the youngsters. A young pigeon that needs to be helped pls do so,  but if it repeated,  it should be removed, regardless of any (paper) pedigree or any later performances. Also pigeons in the winter or moulting period must be well observed and also strict for specimens that (too) quickly become ill. One can also apply this to summer youngsters who only serve as reserve specimens for the following year to play, here again one must dare to select on their strength and their genetic ability to overcome diseases in a natural way. Only in this way can a strong pigeon population be built up.

Perfect from the very beginning.

As you could read above, the construction of the immune system in pigeons starts very early, namely from the embryo in the egg. It is therefore extremely important that the embryo does not go through an infection in the egg and that there are sufficient nutrients present to ensure proper development. In addition, it is also evident that the breeding period runs smoothly and that no infection via the eggshell reaches the young embryo. It would lead us too far to discuss the preparation of the breeding season, but salmonella infections or the like are out of the question. Furthermore, you must ensure that the embryo has sufficient nutrients. A well-balanced diet already provides a large part of this. In addition, extra vitamin ADE and especially omega 3 fatty acids are important. Especially the latter have an anti-inflammatory effect and are very efficient to give during the coupling and the first months in the growth. The anti-oxidant effect of vit E is therefore also very important. Another product that is used a lot for this is ginkgo extract (defender +), which is also called a natural anti-inflammatory and an anti-oxidant which prevents cell damage.

Plants induced immunity.

In recent years, an enormous amount of scientific research has been carried out and it has been discovered that certain plant extracts and essential oils have a great influence on immunity. For example, it has been demonstrated that the antibody-antigen binding and their excretion was much higher in poultry treated with plant extracts. The production of cytokines is also higher in these treated animals compared to their control group. In any case, there are hundreds of scientific articles that show that plant extracts and essential oils have a positive effect on the immune system. Phytogenic medicine is a rapidly growing branch of science which for a not insignificant part offers an answer to the limitations as mentioned above (development of resistant bacteria,) of classical, chemical medicine and is a particularly good addition to it.

Application in the pigeon sport

If we look at which are the useful plant parts with which we can work in the pigeon sport, we distinguish three large groups. Firstly, there are the pure plants or herbs themselves that, usually dried and ground, can be mixed as such under the feed. In addition, we distinguish the so-called plant extracts and finally the essential oils.

The two most important we can use to support and stimulate the health and natural defenses of our pigeons are the extracts and the essential oils because the concentration of active plant molecules in extracts and oils is many times higher than what we can retrieve in dried plant material. The big difference between "extracts" and "essential oils" is the extraction technique. Essential oils consist of the aromatic fraction of plants and are extracted by steam distillation from plants, while the so-called extracts contain the non-aromatic plant parts which are removed from the plant material by means of boiling, soaking or filtration. Not all plants have essential oils either, so from some plants we can only use the extracts. To get an idea about the concentration of active ingredients in, for example, an essential oil, you can assume that you need 100 to 200Kg of dried plant material to obtain 1 to 2 Kg of essential oil! Hence the use of EO will always yield much more results than the use of the dried plant material itself. Essential oils and plant extracts contain hundreds to sometimes thousands of organic components including monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, phenols, aldehydes, ketones, esters, lactones, flavonoids, coumarines, ethers, oxides etc ...


Last but not least, many of the plant medicines used in veterinary medicine (as is the case for all plants described above) contain powerful natural antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds that eliminate so-called "free radicals" and thereby protect the tissues and their function. Those "free radicals" cause a lot of damage to cell membranes of the most diverse tissues and organs. And let it be now that intensive efforts, such as those that our pigeons are exposed to on a daily basis, are one of the main causes for the formation of such "free radicals". In other words, it is crucial in those situations where much of the organism is required (large and / or long-term effort) that sufficient supply of antioxidants is ensured. As can be seen, the effect of plant products can not simply be grasped under one denominator, but it can be argued that the often multifaceted effect of natural remedies can often be explained by applying the double law of naturopathy: strengthening and cleaning. Important to add to this is that the expected effects of plant products will depend very much on proper pre-treatment of the plant material and the application of the correct extraction technique.

Important when used for pigeons:

-use plant extracts that have been extensively tested and their effect scientifically proven on poultry and preferably on pigeons.

-use products that are safe and where the concentration of extracts and oils are sufficiently high, otherwise they have no effect.

-use the product for a longer period of time, best starting with daily giving for 10-14 days and then 3-4x per week.

-use the products depending on the period and the needs, for youngsters or widowers can be a difference and have you assisted by people with experience.


Vet. Rudi Hendrikx

Vet. Christophe Esquenet

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