Common Pigeon Diseases

Pigeon in boy's hand with Chevron striped background
Getty Images/Mieke Dalle

Pigeons are one of the most popular kinds of pet birds in the order Columbiforme. They, along with doves, are short legged, stout bodied birds that are found almost everywhere in the world in both the wild and our homes. As pets we care for their every need, including treating the following common diseases that they may get.

Pigeon Canker

Canker is caused by a tiny organism called a protozoan. It is a disease that is easily transmitted from bird to bird but thankfully it is not able to survive outside of a bird for more than a few minutes.

Pigeons pass it to other pigeons when they share water bowls, exhibit billing with other adult pigeons and feed young pigeons crop milk.

The organism that causes canker is typically found in a pigeon's crop, throat, bile duct, cloaca, proventriculus or other part of the digestive tract. Nodules from canker may also be found on the navel in a nestling pigeon or in pigeon sinuses. Symptoms of canker will vary depending on what part of the body it is found in but since it most commonly affects the throat, most pigeons will have breathing difficulties due to the nodules on the tonsils. Other signs of canker, besides the visible nodules, include diarrhea, weight loss, lethargy and bleeding from the mouth and cloaca. Symptoms worsen if the disease is not treated and canker can cause death.

Canker lesions look like other kinds of infections (such as an abscess) but remember that canker will only affect parts of the pigeon's body that are related or close to the digestive tract (so a lesion on a wing is definitely not canker).

The organism may also be seen microscopically in the feces. If your pigeon has canker you need to treat it aggressively with medications in the imidazole family of drugs and sometimes surgical removal of the nodule is necessary by your vet.

Pigeon Worms

Like many other types of animals, pigeons can harbor various kinds of worms in their intestinal tract.

Roundworms, tapeworms and hairworms grow and live in the digestive tract of pigeons and can cause diarrhea, weakness, increased susceptibility to other diseases and performance issues in competitive pigeons. Sometimes you can see worms passed in the feces of a pigeon but often times their eggs are found during a microscopic exam, done by your vet, of the droppings.

Pigeons get worms from eating insects and ingesting infected droppings from other birds so it can be very difficult to prevent your pigeon from getting worms. Regular microscopic exams of your pigeon's droppings is recommended to screen for these parasites and treatment involves medication that, like other pigeon medicine, can be added to the water.

Pigeon Coccidia

Similar to worms, coccidia is an intestinal protozoan that is found in pigeons and other animals and causes diarrhea, loss of nutrient absorption, weakness, lethargy and weight loss. Coccidia is easily transmitted from pigeon to pigeon when they ingest infected droppings and is often found in small, acceptable quantities in most lofts. If a pigeon is acting normally and a small amount of coccidia is found, it is often not treated. 

Coccidia is a microscopic organism so you will not be able to see it without a microscope, therefore regular fecal examinations by your vet are recommended to make sure your pigeon does not have an abundance of coccidia.

Despite small amounts of the protozoan being acceptable, if your pigeon has coccidia and loose droppings (the most common indication of coccidia) or other symptoms, they should receive medications to treat it.

Pigeon Hexamita

Very similar to the protozoan that causes canker in pigeons, this organism is also found in the digestive tract of pigeons. Thankfully, hexamita is not as serious for most pigeons as canker is but it is still recommended to treat a bird that is diagnosed with it. The organism can be found microscopically in feces and is often confused with canker due to their similar appearance. It can cause diarrhea if it overpopulates your pigeon's intestinal tract but typically goes unnoticed in normal pigeons.

Pigeon Lice, Mites and Flies

External parasites, such as lice, mites and flies are a real bother to your pet pigeon.

These annoying pests not only bite and irritate your pigeon but they can also cause more serious damage. A scaly appearance to the unfeathered areas of your pigeon, tiny holes in the feather shafts and itchy birds are all signs of external parasites. Depending on the type of parasite, medicated sprays are typically used on a pigeon that is infected.

Pigeon Respiratory Infections

Other than canker, respiratory infections are probably the most feared type of problem that pigeon owners face. Respiratory infections are extremely contagious and stressed, older and younger birds are most susceptible to infection.

Respiratory infections make it hard for a bird to breathe and fly so they are less active and competing pigeons will perform poorly. If left untreated, a pigeon with a respiratory infection will be open mouth breathing, have an increased effort while breathing, sit fluffed up with their eyes closed, not eat and will ultimately die.

Many things can cause a respiratory infection in a pigeon including fungi, viruses, bacteria and mites. The infections can involve the lungs, air sacs, sinuses and other parts of the respiratory tract. There may be visible discharge from the nares, inside the mouth or choana, or you may actually hear your pigeon sneezing and/or coughing if they have a respiratory infection. Aggressive treatment, including environmental cleaning, treating underlying parasites that may have predisposed your pigeon to getting sick, finding the cause of the infection and medicating your pigeon, are all important in eradicating a respiratory infection.

Pigeon Chlamydia

There are many different strains of chlamydia in pigeons and some birds have developed an immunity to them but if your pigeon is stressed they may have a flare-up of this virus. 

Medications to treat the virus can be given to birds showing symptoms of chlamydia but the disease cannot be cured. Respiratory infections caused by the virus are the real concern in pigeons who have chlamydia so they are usually treated symptomatically while ensuring their environment is ideal (avoid dampness, fluctuating temperatures, etc.).

Pigeon Mycoplasma

Also a cause of respiratory infections, mycoplasma can infect pigeons in their respiratory tract. The symptoms of a mycoplasma infection are the same as those of a chlamydia and other respiratory infections so depending on the part of the respiratory tract that is infected, you may see nasal discharge, coughing, sneezing and other symptoms.

Stress is again the primary reason why a pigeon will show symptoms of mycoplasma therefore managing a clean, stress-free, ideal environment for your pigeon is crucial in keeping your bird healthy.