Canker, also known as trichomoniasis, is one of the most common diseases that affect pigeons, whether racing birds or not.
Canker actually affects other species, including common poultry such as chickens.
Read on to find out more about what causes canker in pigeons, its symptoms, how contagious it is, and if it can be treated.
What is canker in pigeons?
Canker is a disease caused by a pathogen called Trichomonas, and pigeons have a particular one that affects their species, called Trichomonas columbae.
By comparison, chickens develop the chicken-specific type of protozoan disease, Trichomonas gallinae.
The pathogen is typically transmitted through sharing the same food and water dishes. Carrier pigeons leave the pathogen in these sources and healthy birds pick it up by accident.
A very interesting fact about this disease is that some pigeons have a genetic predisposition. The same goes for canker resistance, which seems to be transmitted genetically.
Male pigeons that become infected and are not treated immediately can become infertile.
Symptoms of canker in pigeons
This disease has three different forms — one that affects the birds’ pharynx, another that affects their organs, particularly the liver, and a last one that’s known as umbilical canker and that can be transmitted to a young bird through an infected nest box.
Depending on the exact form that the pigeons have developed, they can show various symptoms.
Here are some examples:
- Ruffled plumage
- Repeated swallowing attempts
- Difficulty breathing
- The presence of mucus inside the bird’s throat
- A yellow coloring of the beak and throat
- Weight loss
- An increase in the pigeons’ water intake
- A reluctance to fly
Canker has high mortality in young pigeons, and if they become infected through their nest box, they are likely to lose their life in a matter of one to two weeks maximum.
What diseases can pigeon canker be mistaken for?
If you are a pigeon breeder and you do not have a lot of experience with common pigeon diseases, making the difference between this condition and others can be quite challenging.
Consult a veterinarian if you notice any of the symptoms we have mentioned in the section above; a vet will be able to perform a differential diagnosis between canker and other health issues.
Canker can be mistaken for some of the following diseases:
- Capillary worms
- Salivary stones
- Sour crop
- Wet pox
The reason we recommend asking a veterinarian to look at your pigeons is that they will use a microscope to examine some of the secretions they have collected from your birds’ throats, for example.
A microscopic examination will quickly reveal the pathogen and lead to the vet recommending the correct type of treatment.
Pigeon canker susceptibility
We’ve already noted that the primary way Trichomoniasis is transmitted from one bird to the next is by sharing feeding and watering accessories.
While keeping pigeons in a closed environment, especially during the colder months of the year increases the risk of canker transmission, the truth is that even racing pigeons are affected by the condition.
They can pick up the pathogen from open watering sources and other wild pigeons they come in contact with.
The pigeons’ water is the primary source of infection, which is why it mostly affects birds while traveling to racing competitions.
These birds will use the same water source, and therefore, the likelihood of them becoming infected is much higher.
The summer is the season when Trichomoniasis in pigeons is particularly common, so making sure that your pigeons always have clean water at their disposal and that their waterers are completely clean is definitely the right way of going about things.
How can pigeon canker be treated?
Once your veterinarian has diagnosed this health issue, they will prescribe a specific medication that you will have to administer to your pigeons.
The drug is usually mixed with the drinking water also because it makes it possible for all the birds to receive it easily.
The most commonly used medicine for treating pigeon canker is Ronidazole, and it seems to be the most effective one, too.
Other options also exist, such as Metronidazole or Dimetridazole.
All of these drugs have different degrees of toxicity, which is very important.
For example, if your pigeons have developed the organ form of the disease, their liver will already be affected, so you do not want to put even more pressure on their hepatic health by giving them a potentially toxic medication.
Dimetridazole is riskier in this sense, whereas Metronidazole and Ronidazole are safer.
If you feel that water-soluble canker medication might not be the right option for you as you can’t control how much water every pigeon drinks or if they have any, for that matter (and if they are lethargic, they might not manage to drink any), ask your vet about oral canker tablets.
Also, some birds can drink too much water and therefore, might ingest too much medication, which is another risk.
You will have to take each pigeon and give them pills individually, but at least you will know for sure that every bird has received its medication properly.
While giving your birds the treatment is definitely going to be effective, you might also have to perform some manual cleaning operations.
For example, some birds develop crusts and yellow secretions in their beaks and throats, which means that you’ll have to try and remove them so that they can begin eating and drinking normally again.
Some pigeon owners who would rather not feed their pigeons drugs instead give their pigeons cinnamon powder mixed into their feed, this is said to be an effective way of treating canker.
Can canker in pigeons be prevented?
Excellent hygiene can prevent Trichomoniasis in pigeons to some extent.
However, you do have to consider that a risk will continue to exist, especially if your birds get outside and come in contact with other pigeons that might be carriers.
Some pigeon breeders occasionally add apple cider vinegar (3-5 ml/liter) to their birds’ drinking water as the protozoan cannot survive in such an acidic environment.
You can do this once every several days or even once a week.
Continuously drinking acidic water is not healthy for pigeons, so do not add apple cider vinegar to it every day.
If you see any of the clinical signs we have noted in any of your birds, isolate them from the rest of the flock and get in touch with your vet.
Can humans get trichomoniasis from birds?
The reason this pathogen does not pose any health risk to humans or any other mammals, for that matter, is that avian parasites typically affect particular species.
Just to be on the safe side of things, wash your hands after handling your pigeons or after cleaning their living enclosures.
Pigeons can transmit other zoonoses to people, so maintaining strict hygiene is your best weapon against catching any disease from your birds.
This article was written by our qualified veterinarian Cristina.
This is part of our commitment to providing you with the most trustworthy veterinary advice for your pigeons.
- Trichomonas Infection in a Community of Free-Ranging Domestic and Wild Columbiformes and Bonelli’s Eagle (Aquila fasciata)
- Prevalence and Genotyping of Trichomonas infections in wild birds in central Germany
- Comparative pharmacokinetics of metronidazole in healthy and Trichomonas gallinae infected pigeons