Electrolytes and Racing Pigeons

Gordon A Chalmers, DVM

In my reading, I find that there seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding about the use of electrolytes in racing pigeons.  In fairness to my fellow fanciers, I have to say that I believe this state of affairs to be the result of mostly inadequate information provided for fanciers on the subject in racing pigeons.  Another factor is that many fanciers know that animals like humans and thoroughbred horses sweat, often extensively, during physical exertion, and that they lose not only a great deal of fluid but also many electrolytes during that exertion.  To fanciers the logical extension of that knowledge would be that since our pigeons are hard working athletes too, they also need electrolytes along with the fluids.

To try to put the subject into some perspective, I thought it might be useful to discuss electrolytes and racing pigeons.  Firstly, "electrolyte" is a medical/scientific term for various salts in the body. As the name indicates, ‘electrolyte’ means that these salts are electrically charged and are attracted either to the negative (cathode) or positive (anode) pole in a magnetic field.  The major electrolytes, their chemical symbol and electrical charge are:

 Sodium (Na+)

Potassium (K+)

Chloride (Cl-),

Calcium (Ca2+)

Magnesium (Mg2+),

Bicarbonate (HCO3-),

Phosphate (PO42-)

Sulfate (SO42

            Electrolytes are important because they are chemicals that cells, especially nerve, heart, and body muscle use to maintain voltages across their cell membranes and to carry electrical impulses (nerve impulses, muscle contractions) across themselves and to other cells.  The major electrolytes sodium, potassium and chloride were discussed earlier (pages).  The kidneys function to maintain the concentrations of electrolytes and water in the blood at a constant level despite changes in the body.  The concentration and balance of electrolytes are critical for life and for this reason they are tightly regulated.  Marine birds with salt glands that deal with excess amounts of dietary sources of sodium or chloride are highly resistant to toxicity of these electrolytes.  However, birds like pigeons that don’t have salt glands are able to tolerate high amounts of sodium, potassium or chloride in the diet as long as they have ready access to fresh water.  The increased intake of water allows the kidneys to excrete high levels of these electrolytes in urine, resulting in dilute urine and wet droppings.  If pigeons don’t have water available, salt poisoning can occur, causing dehydration, diarrhea, staggering, nervousness, and death.  Electrolytes in water are much more toxic than comparable amounts found in feed.  If levels of electrolytes in water are high, birds will try to increase their intake of water which also results in the intake of even greater amounts of electrolytes. 

           To demonstrate electrolyte values in pigeons, I would point out firstly, an experiment in which a number of pigeons were flown in a regular series of races from distances of 70 through 385 miles in flight times ranging from two to 22 hours.  During the racing season these birds had been fed a commercial ration of grains and had free access to water and, importantly, to a mineral mix.   Blood samples were drawn from all flown birds within five minutes after they arrived home from each race and before they could eat or drink.  These samples were analyzed for various components and the results were compared with samples collected at the same time from a similar number of unflown birds.  Of additional interest and great importance to racing pigeon fanciers, this study also examined the effects of flight on values of electrolytes in blood.  Results showed that there was no significant difference in the values of electrolytes in birds flown up to 22 hours, compared with those in the 42 unflown birds.  In such a case there would be absolutely no reason to provide electrolytes in the drinkers for any of the birds returning from these races since their blood values of electrolytes were normal.         

However, in another study, electrolyte values in the blood of flown, severely heat-stressed, dehydrated pigeons became enormously concentrated by as much as 33-53%.  With the potential for blood levels of electrolytes to increase so significantly because of the dehydration that can occur during hot weather racing, it is obvious that giving electrolytes to pigeons flown in such conditions is unnecessary.  Further, the use of electrolytes in dehydrated pigeons concentrates their blood values even further, especially when they are given to severely dehydrated birds after races held in very hot weather.

Obviously then, there is no need for the use of electrolytes in pigeons competing in a ‘normal’ series of races (as in the first example cited), as long as these birds have daily access to a wide-ranging mineral mix.  As well, there is definitely no reason to use electrolytes in pigeons that have become dehydrated during hot weather racing (as in the second example cited).  The over all conclusion from these studies is that racing pigeons that have ready access to a wide-ranging mineral mix simply don’t need electrolytes in the drinkers either before or after a race.  What should fanciers do instead?  Simply this:  Before birds are shipped and after they arrive home from any race, allow them ready access to fresh water without electrolytes.   As a routine throughout the year, fanciers should also provide daily access to a wide-ranging loose mineral mix from which pigeons are quite capable of establishing normal levels of electrolytes in the circulatory system and indeed throughout the body.  As well, since foods of animal origin are usually good sources of electrolytes, the use of a livestock pellet containing animal-source protein as a portion of the diet is also a good idea.  For these reasons, electrolyte solutions are simply not needed in normal healthy racing pigeons either prior to, or after a race.  Certainly, for the reasons given, electrolytes should NOT be given to dehydrated pigeons returning from races flown in extremely hot weather.  One more point - NEVER add common salt to the drinkers for any reason because of the chances of increased toxicity.          

Where might electrolytes be best used in pigeons?  When pigeons have diarrhea from paratyphoid or paramyxovirus infections etc., for example, they lose electrolytes in the fluids they pass as droppings.  To compensate for such losses, electrolytes may be use in the drinkers.  It is important to follow package instructions exactly, since if electrolyte powders or concentrated solutions are mixed correctly according to directions on the label, their concentration in the drinkers will be similar to their normal concentration in the blood stream.