Coccidia and Racing Performance - A Small Survey

Gordon A Chalmers, DVM
Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada
During the summer of 2001, I received a basic question from the editor of the British Homing World about the amount of actual evidence that exists with regard to the effects of disease and performance in racing pigeons. In that context, he also asked..... "How much research has actually been carried out by the veterinary profession on the health of birds in top performing lofts in relation to the actual performance of individual birds? For example, has much testing been done on pigeons just prior to basketing for a race, with these results then being studied alongside the actual performance of the birds?"
This was, really, a very interesting, incisive question, and one for which I am embarrassed to say, I had no ready answer. Accordingly, over the next few weeks, I contacted quite a number of my veterinary colleagues and some knowledgeable fanciers here in North America, as well as some in South Africa, Australia, the UK and Europe. The uniform answer to this question was that no one who responded to my inquiry was aware that the kind of veterinary study mentioned had ever been carried out or published. It would therefore seem that such a study has yet to be done and published, at least by the veterinary profession. In the light of these questions, I also mentioned to my veterinary colleagues and the fanciers I contacted, the example of an oocyst count of 96,000 found in one British fancier's birds after they had flown poorly from a 700-mile race. (Oocysts are the egg-like stage of the coccidial life cycle found in droppings. They are what fanciers refer to as "cocci counts". To me, at the microscopic level, oocysts very much resemble hard-boiled eggs that have been cut in cross section or lengthwise, depending on the species of coccidia involved.) The following information is taken from replies from individuals who responded, and from one published report.
On the question of coccidia in pigeons, one veterinary reference from Britain (Wallis, AS. 1991. Common conditions of domestic pigeons. In Practice, pps 96-100) indicated that "a count that was under 3,000 oocysts per gram (opg) of droppings was considered to be normal, with no expected response to treatment. A count of 3,000-20,000 opg was considered to be moderate, with treatment often providing a significant improvement in performance. A count of 20,000-50,000 opg was considered to be severe, with improvement in condition and performance as a response to treatment. A count of greater than 50,000 opg was considered to be very severe, with marked improvement in the associated clinical picture following treatment. However, Wallis also made the point that counts greater than 100,000 opg had been seen occasionally, without evidence of any observable abnormality in the birds shedding these large numbers of oocysts.
On the topic of threadworm (Capillaria sp.) problems, this same reference indicated that infestations with this species of worm is always considered to be significant. The following findings and interpretations were presented:
Egg counts up to 1,000 eggs per gram (epg) of droppings were considered to be normal, with little clinical response to treatment, although eggs were no longer shed in droppings. A count of 1,000-5,000 epg was considered to be severe, with improved condition and performance to be expected following treatment. A count over 5,000 was considered to be very severe, with marked improvement following treatment."
Once again, in this same reference, "roundworm eggs were classified in the same way as those for the threadworm. Disease from roundworms was much less severe than that caused by threadworms, although heavy infestations often lead to blockage of the intestines and to a chronically enlarged liver which may well have had a fatal outcome, even though the worms were removed successfully."
    Another prominent, very experienced British veterinarian, Frank DW Harper, commented on coccidia as follows: "
  1. Is coccidiosis ever a primary disease in pigeons?
  2. A high oocyst count (25,000+?) may well be evidence of heavy infection and therefore a cause of stress, but my perspective is that it is more likely to be a result of stress (concurrent disease, environment, etc.. Look how the counts vary from section to section [....of the loft]. It is easy to identify from a group of samples, those birds housed in the north-east corner [....of the loft]). Specific treatment gives a transient improvement at best, but the underlying cause needs to be addressed.
  3. Given my perspective, I seldom "treat for cocci", but use the count to monitor the birds. A change in the count is of far greater significance than the actual figure.
  4. Although sampling and counting of [...oocysts in...] individual birds is tedious, it can be of value in predicting performance. Samples from a given bird will vary through the day, but the overnight sample from a resting bird is of greatest value.
  5. The "standing count" -- the average or "normal" in successful lofts -- is usually below 20,000 without treatment. That varies greatly between the individual birds, but regardless of the actual figure, a rising count usually predicts a fall off in performance (and vice versa). This applies to the team, but particularly to individuals. Other things being equal,the bird with a count of X thousand, but falling, will beat a loftmate with the same count, but rising .
  6. Using these principles, I have been able to predict the first three home from nine or ten- bird widowhood teams, and have been able to suggest to clients which birds to pool for the following race, with considerable success....I have never published my data.
  7. A count of 96,000 after a bad time at 700 miles? I would regard this as a result, not the cause."
A reply from Dr GA van Oortmersson, a biologist/racing fancier from Holland reads as follows: "......I was asked to answer your question about pigeon performance and oocyst counts. I have been asking around whether someone knew anything in this area. The result however is negative.
The only incidental data which I can recall myself stems from about 20 years ago. Then in my local club we checked youngsters for oocysts, just to inform and entertain club members. We however did not make real counts. The pigeons of our champion at the moment (Mister B) contained many, many more oocysts than the pigeons of the rest of the club members. So Mister B nervously asked what he should do about it. We advised him to do nothing as his birds performed so well! Next race, his results went down, and he admitted he had given his birds some medicine. This experience is not worth much, but anyway it tells that the presence of so many oocysts does not inevitably lead to bad results."
A reply from Dr Ludger Kamphausen of Germany reads, in part, ".....when we have pigeons in our clinic, we investigate their droppings daily. Sometimes it happens that we can't find anything in these droppings for several days, and suddenly, one pigeon starts excreting coccidia. This always happens (don't laugh!) on Mondays. It seems that the weekend is a kind of stress for the pigeon because the rhythm of feeding and cleaning has changed. This stress seems to start the excreting of coccidia. Do you have similar findings?"
The latter two experiences seem to tie in nicely with the findings reported by Frank Harper of Britain, ie, that stress can induce increases in "cocci counts", and indeed that these increased counts are the result of stress, rather than the cause of the problem. Note again the supportive findings of Wallis who indicated that occasionally, counts of over 100,000 opg are seen, with no indication of a health problem in these birds. At this point it should be noted that some veterinary practitioners don't conduct actual counts, but instead, rely on their years of experience to make practical judgments of low, moderate or high numbers of the oocysts seen on microscopic examinations of droppings.
So, stressful events like basketing, handling, mixing with strange birds in a strange environment, shipping, lack of water, liberation, and the physical effects of the race itself, etc., may well have an influence on the level of shedding, and result in an increased "cocci count". These stresses cause a release of corticosteroid hormones from the adrenal glands. In turn, these hormones suppress the immune system and allow the coccidial life cycle to "gear up" again, with the production and release of greater numbers of oocysts in droppings.
In general, it is known that a few coccidia in the intestines of any species cause very little harm, and are useful in stimulating the immune system to remain alert. The situation resembles a classical stand-off, in which, on one hand, the coccidia are prevented by an active immune system, from multiplying and causing disease. On the other hand, the immune system is unable to eliminate them completely, but because of the presence of a few coccidia, the system is kept in a state of readiness. My concern over time hasn't been the low numbers of coccidia present in the individual bird, but instead, to the potential for an explosive outbreak of coccidiosis in susceptible birds, especially youngsters, if loft conditions become favorable. This means conditions such as the presence of persistently wet floor areas from such diverse causes as overflowing drinkers to a leaky roof during days of rain, etc.. Under such conditions, the oocysts passed in droppings incubate in this cool, damp environment, and develop in a process called sporulation to become infective. Recently passed oocysts are not infective, but must go through the sporulation process before they can infect susceptible birds - and this usually means weaned youngsters in which there can be explosive outbreaks if environmental conditions are favorable for the further development of coccidia shed in droppings.
These common findings and comments from several sources suggest to me that fanciers who do their own microscopic examinations of droppings for oocysts may well respond too vigorously to the presence of a few oocysts by treating quickly to eliminate any hint of this parasite in their birds. A few oocysts in droppings really don't represent a serious threat to the individual bird, and in fact, they are likely completely innocuous. As pointed out by Frank Harper, the most significant feature associated with coccidia in his experience, is not the actual "cocci count", but rather, is likely related to any change, that is, an increase or decrease in the total count. Thus, it would seem that those who rush to treat when they find a very few oocysts in a sample of droppings are very likely overreacting by a wide margin, and would be better advised to sit tight and re-examine overnight samples from individual birds on a daily basis to determine whether counts are either rising or falling, and based on these results, to plan racing/pooling strategies accordingly.
This small survey of veterinarians and fanciers was very much an eye opener for me, and in reporting these results, I hope that the subject of coccidia and "cocci counts" may now be in somewhat better perspective for racing fanciers. It certainly is for me.
This page was last up-dated on January 4, 2004

Below are your comments:
Friday February 13, 2004
lemjimer Saâd
Kenitra, morocco
MONSIEUR, c'est avec un grand plaisir que je vous écrie, en éspairant que ma léttre vous trouvera en bonne santer. Preumiérement je suis trés heureus de trouver votre cite dans mas boit d'aimail, je vous félicite pour votre crèation. Je ne sait pas par cois je vait commençais, preumiérement je suis un jeune élveur de pigeons voyageur, de nationnaliter marocain, ager de 22 ans j'ai une demonde a vous fair . je veux des information sur les meilleur race de pigeon voyageur. et quel sont les maladis infecteuse et quel sons les précotion contre ses maladis . -2éme question :Le dragon, le cravater, le sachot, le d'anverse, le pigeons de 11 remige, le duliége,que sont leur origine -Et comment peut an savoir ci un pigeons voyageur est il pour la reproduction ou pour la coursse, pouver vous m'informait, je serait tres heureus ci vous m'envoier c'est information ,pour avoir une bonne contuniation sur mon domaine des pigeons voyageur voyageur, j'éspaire les avoir,mérci de me lire est de m'écrire. An atandant de me lires j'èspere avoir une rèponsse détailler est précise sur c'est race et les maladie contagieuse J'aispère, Monsieur le directeur,que vous m'aporterait tout l'aide possible les information demonder. je vous remercie d'avonce pour votre comprèhention. Signatur: s. Lemjimer Lemjimer saad, Ouled Oujih Bloc G , N 84.Kenitra Morocco
Sunday January 9, 2005
boudehari salah eddine
tlemcen, algerie
merci d a votre inquietude pour notre elevage de ce genre depigeon voyageur c'est pour ce la que je vous ecrire je voudrer s'avoir si je peu conetre plus enplus de cette race de pigeon voyageur et Merci.

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