Helping the Immune System Do it! (Part 1)   by John Vance

The health and performance of your racing pigeons is directly influenced by the vigor of their immune system. Under natural circumstances, the immune system is a wonderful, sophisticated network of cells and molecules that constantly strive to maintain health and well being. It is responsible for all aspects of health and when functioning at peak efficiency can handle anything.

However, stresses associated with racing and training, cross contamination in the shipping crates, environmental pollution, inclement weather, inadequate nutritional feed sources and a number of other factors, greatly reduce the effectiveness of our bird's immune systems.

The challenges that we face; when preparing our birds for the breeding season, the rearing of their young and in preparation for the race season have reduced many fliers to a “shotgun” methodology when using antibiotics on the birds. You know what I am talking about, treating the birds with a regular antibiotic schedule whether or not they actually show symptoms. We often hear this approach called “preventative treatments”. I call it - Antibiotic Abuse. Just pull the trigger and hope you hit something.

These so called “preventative treatments” compound health problems by breaking down within our birds the “natural” disease fighting mechanisms, we collectively call the “immune response”, while at the same time often creating “super-bugs” resistant to many of the antibiotic treatments available today.

Making the situation even worse, we then further tax our bird's internal organs with all kind of supplements and stimulants in the hope of “building up” the very safeguard systems we have broken down, through our so called preventative treatments, in the first place.

Helping the Immune System Do it!

I know this will appear crazy to some, but the successful flier of the near future, will shun the “shotgun approach” to pigeon health and implement programs that enhance immune response. This is being done today, and we will see greater and greater support for immune modulators as continued antibiotic dependence fails to produce the results many are striving for in our sport.

Prophylactic Products:

We have seen in recent years, products being marketed that attempt to deny the normal pathways used by bacterial and viral infections to gain a stronghold in our birds. Oligosacharides and probiotic based products utilize a two fold process of producing an acidic environment in the intestinal tract that is hostile to invading “bad” bacteria and by occupying (blocking) the number of entry points available for these infections to gain entrance into the internal organs and blood supply of our birds .


Oligosacharides of a particular molecular structure are proving to be effective in attracting and neutralizing bacteria and mycotoxins within the digestive tract.

In order for growth-inhibiting pathogenic bacteria like E. Coli and Salmonella to attach themselves to the gut wall of our birds, they must first locate a docking station, that is a particular molecular structure extending out from the epithelial lining that is available for attachment. Binding to the gut wall is what enables these pathogens to produce and release enterotoxins which poison our birds and produce the external symptoms we associate with these infections.

Certain oligosacharides possess two characteristics useful in fighting pathogenic bacteria. First, they are not easily digested but pass through the intestinal tract, and second they contain the exact molecular structure needed by pathogenic bacteria in order to dock or attach themselves. In theory, pathogenic, growth-inhibiting microbes that would normally adhere to the gut wall, instead bind to these oligosacharide structures and are then passed out of the digestive tract without having successfully attached to the intestinal lining, thus denying these pathogens the opportunity of adversely affecting our birds.

Oligosacharides, are however not a panacea, they do not have the same effect on all pathogens, and work best binding to gram-negative bacteria such as E-Coli and Salmonella. Their positive effect is most noticeable during the early stages of development and less noticeable in adult birds. This is somewhat to be expected as older birds have a more advanced immune response and can more readily deal with bacterial attacks without the assistance of an oligosacharide additive.

As a general rule, do not administer these pathogen binding oligosacharides at the same time you are administering friendly bacteria (probiotics). Certain strains of friendly bacteria make use of the same attachment structures as do the pathogenic bacteria and as such they will bind to the oligosacharide and be flushed out of the system. If you administer pathogen binding oligosacharides and friendly bacteria at the same time you run the risk of neutralizing the beneficial effect of both products.


Watching CSI on television a while back, I heard one of the show's characters comment that there are thousands of different types of bacteria in our mouths and most of them serve no other known purpose than to keep other “bad” bacteria from establishing themselves. This is somewhat the same reasoning as to why we use probiotics on our birds. We are attempting to protect their intestinal tract from being overrun with “bad” bacteria.

When we use a probiotic, we are hoping to establish viable colonies of these friendly bacteria that will sufficiently coat the intestinal lining with many layers of friendly bacteria protection. Theoretically, if all the points of attachment for “bad” bacteria are currently being occupied by untold billions of friendly bacteria, then the “bad” bacteria cannot get a foothold in order to start their own colony.

Besides coating the lining of the intestines and denying the “bad” bacteria a place to multiply, these friendly bacteria produce certain by-products that are helpful to the functioning of the intestinal tract. Often, these same by-products, that are helpful to the health of our birds, create a hostile environment for many of the “bad” bacteria, reducing their ability to survive in the digestive tract.

Unfortunately, many in the sport do not fully understand the benefit of using probiotics, and believe that their use is reserved for “after” antibiotic usage. This could not be further from the truth. The best approach is to flood the gut with a continual source of friendly bacteria thereby strengthening and enriching the “good” bacteria colony and denying “bad” bacteria the opportunity to gain a foothold.

Many fanciers are caught in a continual cycle of antibiotic usage, minimal re-seeding of friendly bacteria (one or two days of probiotic treatment), re-colonization of the gut by “bad” growth-inhibiting pathogenic bacteria and then another treatment of antibiotics. Preferably, one should follow antibiotic usage with a concerted effort to re-establish and enrich the friendly bacteria colony to the point where the bad bacteria has little or no chance of establishing itself in the gut. Deny bad bacteria the opportunity to colonize and you will greatly curtail your need for antibiotics.

The direction that probiotic usage is heading towards is continual feeding (seeding) of the colony with more probiotics. If you can establish a thick healthy colony on the lining of the intestinal wall, then bad bacteria has little or no chance of gaining an infectious foothold. Every time you use antibiotics you are destroying the good colonies along with the bad colonies. This means you are essentially starting the colonization process over again after each antibiotic treatment. Until you are able to establish and maintain a viable colony of friendly bacteria, you will have little choice but to depend on antibiotics to maintain flock health.

The Next Generation: Immune Modulators

Effective immune modulators stop the growth of infectious agents by stimulating white blood cells, improving their immune response, and reducing our reliance on therapeutic and metaphylactic antibiotic usage.

Working on the cellular level, Immune modulators potentiate the macrophage (a specific type of white blood cell), keeping them in a highly prepared state for any threat the immune system may encounter. When your bird's immune system is in this highly prepared state, the invading organisms do not have the time to build up force and strength before the immune system attacks, destroys and/or weakens the invaders.

Even though the immune system is a very complex thing to understand fully, it operates on a very simple principle. It will attack and destroy anything that is not "self". It does not matter to the immune system what something is called. If it is not supposed to be there, it will work to get rid of it and it will do this rather efficiently if given the chance and the proper support.

"Helping the immune system do it" is a radical approach that does not depend upon drugs to maintain health. It does however, make use of the latest immune response research, utilizes immunological advancements and calls upon us, as racing pigeon enthusiast, to more fully understand and appreciate this magnificent “self healing” system.

To be continued...