Pigeon Herpes Virus
By Clint Robertson
I had been breeding and showing pigeons
since the late 1970s when in 1995 I acquired a group of birds from the southern
I sent some birds to a University for testing and was
told after a quick glance, with no testing by the lab, that it was canker
however I already knew it was not. When I phoned the lab the person who received
the specimen had simply looked in the bird’s beak when it arrived and assumed
it was canker and threw it in the garbage and wrote on a report that it was
trichomaniasis. After all the trouble I had went through to get that bird to the lab I was really upset.
I then made some phone calls to a respected pigeon vet in the
During this time I finished up breeding and all the young birds that had made it to the weaning pen were fine. Late that fall, after I had finished treatment, I had a couple late hatches and one day I discovered one of them with the same signs and I was really shocked that I had not eliminated the problem. I decided to just ride out the winter and hoped our harsh winter and time would take care of it. My birds wintered great and I had no problems. I mated up the next spring in late March and had another good start to the breeding season. By May it was getting warmer and humid and I had already weaned the first round of young birds with the second round starting to hit the floor when it hit again. No matter what I did I lost every single baby with the signs. I was not able to save even one of them. Again about 25% were infected.
I had several breeds most of which were Jacobins and I used Racing Homers as feeders. To a large degree only fancy birds appeared affected. The majority of young racing homers showed no sign of the illness. I began killing every young bird at the first sign of the disease to try to stop it from spreading. By this time several other breeders I knew were having the same problems. But again it was only with the young birds. It was attacking the young birds at the time when they were most stressed, leaving the nest and trying to learn to eat on their own. Once they were past this stage they never got sick. No old birds appeared affected. It is also interesting to note that certain families of birds within specific breeds that were more closely inbred seemed more susceptible to the illness.
Once again I sent birds for testing at a different recognized
Veterinary teaching facility. Again the results told me nothing about the
actual problem. They tested organs and identified bacteria present and told
me all about what the birds did not have but again no answers. I was again
very disappointed and so was my vet who had expected more. When I told the
pigeon vet in the
Then in 2009, after much investigation
and consultation with my vet and Dr. Gordon Chalmers I found two labs that
were highly recommended in
I immediately contacted Dr. Chalmers and we discussed how to manage the illness. First I was informed that Pigeon Herpes Virus is present in many lofts world wide. My first thought was to get rid of all my racing homers who I now knew carried the virus and get new feeders to transfer my Jacobin eggs to so they would not get the virus. Dr. Chalmers suggested that this was not the thing to do. He told me that my homers were likely the key to controlling the virus. Over the years my homers have developed antibodies to the virus. They pass on these antibodies to the young birds they feed. The antibodies from the parents simply protect the young until they are at an age when their own immune system is well enough developed to allow these birds to produce their own antibodies. Antibodies from the parents will decrease in level over time in the young birds after which they can produce their own protection from a better developed immune system. However Dr. Chalmers tells me the infection is often persistent in infected birds because of the carrier state. There seems to be a stand-off between the presence of the virus and the immune system. The virus is held at bay by an active immune system until some level of stress depresses the immune system and allows the virus to multiply and to be shed in droppings, nasal and oral secretions, etc.. When the young bird is stressed prior to acquiring immunity it is most susceptible to the virus. It seems performing breeds like adult racing homers are much stronger and rarely show signs of the virus even if they have it. However susceptible young racing lines can and do become infected with this virus. Herpes is a persistent infection in pigeons and appears in susceptible birds if their immunity is low [usually youngsters]. Infected adult pigeons, like herpes-infected humans and other animals, can be persistent carriers. By eliminating as much stress as possible in my loft I was able to virtually eliminate loses and signs from it. Based on experience Dr. Chalmers and I would agree that there is a need to develop lines of birds – regardless of strain or breed – that have greater resistance to disease in general. Maybe by selecting breeders from among those birds whose youngsters are healthy survivors would be a good approach for all of us in pigeons.
Most breeders with good loft management will have little if any problem from the virus. In many lofts canker and salmonella will cause much higher mortality than Pigeon Herpes Virus. There are many strains of Herpes Virus and we know that they are all quite species specific. Pigeon Herpes Virus will not transfer to humans.
I have heard some breeders refer to the signs of Pigeon Herpes Virus as wet canker. There are other signs of Pigeon Herpes Virus that do occur. One is a typical grey color inside the mouth of the birds. It has been reported to me that this can occur in old birds and although they often continue to breed they lose body condition over time and eventually become too weak and will die or need to be destroyed. Remember you cannot treat this virus.
This article and my experience helps to stress the importance of sending birds to be examined in a lab. We need to know what we are dealing with before we can deal with it properly. We must not abuse medications. Some day our lives or the lives of our children may depend on our actions today and the way we use medications.
Another good article on Pigeon Herpes Virus can be found online at http://www.epah.net/birds/Herpesvirus.htm
I would like to thank Dr. Gordon Chalmers for his assistance and advice in helping me to prepare this article. Comments from Dr. Chalmers appear in bold italics.