Racing Pigeons: The Importance of the Intestinal Lining   by John Vance

A little respected fact, but one well understood by perennial OB & YB champions, is that race seasons are often won or lost before the first race is ever flown. Sickness in the breeders, disease transferred to the embryo and egg sac, setbacks to youngsters while in the nest, damage to the intestinal lining from strong medications and antibiotics, medication saturated pigeon milk, etc., all diminish the future potential of a racing pigeon and the resultant physical handicaps cannot be reversed , either through feeding methods nor road training, but will remain with the bird throughout it racing life.

There are two kinds of fanciers whom handicap their bird's physical capabilities; Those that medicate and those that let pathogens run their course unopposed, hoping to weed out the weakest birds. Having read that last sentence, you might think that I am some kind of nut, but what I am trying to point out is that there is a third course of action available, one which will breed you healthy youngsters possessing superior physiological capabilities; birds which will possess greater natural immunity, birds that will have the capability to digest, store and utilize carbohydrates, fats and proteins more efficiently, birds able to flush out race related toxins quicker and to recover from races faster, birds better able to compete at their full potential across the whole race schedule!

One unseen culprit that permanently handicaps our bird's ability, to compete successfully throughout the race season, is damage to the intestinal lining. As fanciers, we damage the intestinal lining when we use chemicals to medicate our birds and we damage the intestinal lining when we allow pathogenic infections to remain unopposed; in the hope of weeding out birds with weak immune systems, by allowing disease to run its course, thereby leaving only those birds with “super” natural immunity.

So what is a fancier to do, medicate or not medicate? Lets answer that by examining what happens to the intestinal lining of our birds when we medicate or when we allow disease to run its course.

If we were to cut out a section of the intestinal lining from one of our birds and lay it flat under a microscope, we would find that it is not a smooth surface. Rather, the intestinal lining would appear to be covered with mountains and valley and the whole surface would appear to be heavily forested. The folds (mountains) increase the surface area of the intestinal lining by about 100% and the trees (forest canopy) increase the surface area by 1000% percent. Yes, that is right 1000%.

The trees of the forest, are called “villi” which are long columns of specialized tissues, extending up from the mountains and valleys of the intestinal lining, much like bristles on a hair brush. These specialized tissues serve many functions in the health and well being of our birds, but the three functions I will address are: nutrient absorption, pathogen identification and repulsion of pathogenic invasions.

Virtally all nurtients, including all amino acids and sugars, enter the body through the small intestinal villi. In this photo, you can see the villi in cross section. The goblet cells, produce a protective mucosal secretion for the villi, this secretion also contains antibodies and immunoglobulins in response to the presence of pathogens in the digestive tract. I think you can see how these tissues could easily be damaged by either the use of medications and antibiotics or by pathogenic colonization of the intestinal lining.

Obviously, the digestive tract absorbs nutrients, this function takes place along the surface of the villi. There are also cells specialized for identifying pathogens along the villi, these cells send warning signals to the immune system when the presence of pathogenic invaders is detected. A third type of specialized cell tissue present on the villi are called “goblet” and "paneth" cells. The combined function of the goblet cells (located along the surface of the villi) and the paneth cells (located at the base of the villi) is to elude mucosal secretions full of antibodies and immunoglobulins, which prevent viruses and bacteria from attaching to the intestinal lining. The villi is both the place where nutrient absorption takes place and it serves as the first line of defense against pathogenic colonization of the intestinal lining.

Not to long ago, I used RoundUp to kill crab grass growing up through the ice plant in the back yard. No matter how careful I was in applying the RoundUp, I succeeded in killing both the crab grass and some of the ice plant around the crab grass. Unfortunately, the crab grass grew back before the ice plant did.

This is what often happens when we medicate our birds. We may be successful in killing the pathogen, but in the process, we damage the villi along the intestinal lining. Worse case scenario, the pathogenic infection returns before the villi has recovered (if it recovers at all) and repeated treatments results in chronic damage to the functionality of the intestinal lining. Add to this madness, the fact that many fanciers during the race season are shotgun treating for cocci, canker, ecoli, parathyroid, etc., on like a three week rotation, and that once healthy canopy of villi ends up looking like areas of Vietnam after application of “Agent Orange”.

NOTE: I acknowledge that proper application of medications, is preferable to allowing pathogens to colonize our birds, however, even when used as directed, many medications will cause some damage to the villi and we need to acknowledge this possibility in order to best select the methods by which we manage our bird's health. Are all medications and antibiotics equally as harsh on the villi? Not at all, but do we know which are safer and which are not? The point, is to take a risk assessment and to take steps to minimize the potential for irreversible damage to our birds.

On the other extreme, you have fanciers that allow outbreaks of pathogens to run unfettered through their YB sections, thinking that the birds must build natural immunity to these pathogens. Unfortunately, there is little that is natural about keeping racing pigeons.

A free roaming pigeon, has the freedom to choose the best environment in which to live. It can move from one place to another until it finds the proper shelter, with the correct amount of ventilation, dryness, and light. These birds are not forced to eat in the same area as where they live. If a particular perch does not suit them, they have the option of finding more suitable housing.

None of these options are available to housed racing pigeons, the fancier makes all these decisions for better or for worse, and we should not call the environments we create for our birds as natural. Therefore, the birds are not building natural immunity. At best, our birds are housed in an artificial environment and their immune systems must try to adapt to the results of this imposed environment.

Now, I am not saying that our race birds are less healthy than wild type pigeons, but I am saying that the methods many fanciers use to maintain health can end up damaging the racing ability of their birds without the fancier even being aware of that damage.

If pathogens like coccidiosis and e coli are allowed to colonize your bird's digestive tract, you might succeed in “weeding out” those birds which are unable to overcome this challenge, but at the same time, you allow damage to the intestinal villi which will be irreversible. It is true, that a fancier may end up with birds better able to survive the challenges of this artificial environmental test, but the birds may also be diminished in their capacity to race at their full potential.

When intestinal disease is allowed to colonize the digestive tract, the result is destruction of the intestinal villi. Studies have shown that many pathogenic infections will eat away at the villi, and that the villi does not regenerate the damaged tissue. Pathogenic colonization often results in lesions all along the intestinal lining which appear somewhat like timber “clear cutting” scars on a mountainside. These lesion have no capacity for nutrient absorption and offer little defense against future viral and bacterial infections. This scaring creates a weak point in the intestinal lining where pathogens can more easily pierce the wall and invade the interior cavity of the birds allowing access to the internal organs, air sacs, lymphatic and nervous systems.

So, what should we do? Ideally, we should find a safe middle of the road approach. Small amounts of most pathogens is a normal condition for pigeons. They should have small colonies of coccidiosis, e coli, parathyroid, salmonella, etc. In this way, the bird's own immune system is constantly controlling these colonies and producing the proper levels of antibodies and immunoglobulins to maintain this control. In addition, we should use certain of the immune builders available to the sport, in order to assist the immune system in controlling pathogenic outbreaks.

This is the concept behind the Max Immune Plus and Show Stopper products. These two products are being used by many top fanciers in order to maintain health in their birds without the need for medications or antibiotics.

Max Immune Plus and Show Stopper control pathogenic infections, yet they do not adversely affect the natural flora of the gut (friendly bacteria) nor do they damage to the villi. This allows the bird's innate immune defenses to work at peak performance levels and also allows maximum nutrient absorption along the intestinal lining.

I am not going to tell you that you cannot be a champion without the use of medications. I am only suggesting that there is a preferred method for maintaining health in our birds. Whenever I receive a phone call from someone experiencing health problems with their birds, I always recommend that they treat with the appropriate medication while they wait for my products to arrive. Then I tell them to use my products as directed to avoid the need for future medication or antibiotic usage.

I know that there are champions who mediate on a regular basis. I think that in the short run, they can have success. However, I doubt that their birds will have success over several years since cumulative damage to the intestinal villi will diminish a bird's ability to give a champion performance years before their time. I think this is one of the reasons that we have so few race birds, over two years old, on the race sheets. The intestinal lining reaches a point where the amount of damage inhibits the ability to performance at the level necessary to win.

I wanted to use this article to point out “one more important reason” why you, as racing pigeon enthusiast, should migrate your health management regime to products like Max Immune Plus and Show Stopper. We need to realize that the cost of using medications and antibiotics may be far greater than we ever imagined and considering that there are viable alternatives, we should examine the pros and cons or our management methods.

Becaue of the length of this article, I will leave the topic of how the specialized tissues of the villi identify pathogens to a part II of this article to appear in a later issue of the Newsletter.

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