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Chapter 25 - Trichomoniasis

Authors: Rebecca A. Cole

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Synonyms

Canker (doves and pigeons), frounce (raptors), avian trichomoniasis

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Cause

Avian trichomoniasis is caused by a single celled protozoan, Trichomonas gallinae. Avirulent T. gallinae strains that do not cause disease and highly virulent strains are found in nature and circulate within bird populations. The factors that make a strain virulent are not known, but they are thought to be controlled genetically within the parasite. Similarly, the reasons why an avirulent or a virulent form of the parasite is found within a bird population at any period of time also remain unknown. Virulent strains of T. gallinae have caused major mortality events or epizootics in doves and pigeons in addition to less visible, chronic losses (Table 25.1). Infection typically involves the upper digestive tract of doves and pigeons but other species have also been infected (Fig. 25.1).

Trichomoniasis in doves and pigeons, but not in other species, is generally confined to young birds. The parasite was introduced to the U.S. with the introduction of pigeons and doves brought by European settlers. It has been reported that 80 to 90 percent of adult pigeons are infected, but they show no clinical signs of disease. It is speculated that most of these birds became immune as a result of exposure to avirulent strains of the parasite or because they survived mild infections. In pigeons and mourning doves, the parasites are transmitted from the adults to the squabs in the pigeon milk produced in the crop of the adult. Squabs usually become infected with the first feeding of pigeon milk, which is generally within minutes after hatching. The resulting infection may range from asymptomatic or mild disease to a rapidly fatal course resulting in death within 4–18 days after infection. Other modes for infection are through feed, perhaps contaminated drinking water, and feeding on infected birds (Fig. 25.2).

There is no cyst or resistant stage in the parasite’s life cycle; therefore, infection must be passed directly from one bird to another, in contaminated feed or water. Feed and water are contaminated when trichomonads move from the mouth of infected birds, not from their feces. Lesions in the mouth or the esophagus or both of an infected bird (see below) often prevent the passage of ingested grain seeds and cause the bird to regurgitate contaminated food items. Water becomes contaminated by contact with the contaminated bill and mouth. Pigeons that feed among domestic poultry are often blamed for contaminating feed and water and passing the disease to the poultry. Similar transmission has been associated with dove mortality at grain elevators and at birdfeeders. Doves and pigeons cross-feed and bill during courtship, and this behavior facilitates direct transmission as does the consumption of infected birds by raptors. It has been reported that some moist grains can maintain viable T. gallinae for at least 5 days and that parasite survival in water can range from 20 minutes to several hours. These conditions are adequate for disease transmission at birdfeeders and waterers because of the gregarious habits of doves and pigeons.

Table 25.1 Examples of wild bird mortalities reported in the scientific literature due to trichomoniasis.

Year Magnitude Geographic area Comments
1949-51 Tens of thousands of mourning doves Southeastern United States Trichomoniasis broke out in virtually all States in the region; the magnitude of losses focused attention on the devastation that could be caused by this disease and stimulated research on the ecology of this disease.
1950-51 25,000 to 50,000 mourning doves each year Alabama Breeding birds were the focus of infection; mortality was thought to have been grossly underestimated.
1972 Several hundred Nebraska Railroad yards and a grain elevator were focal points of infection; birds fed on spilled grain.
1985 Approximately 800 mourning doves New Mexico Losses at birdfeeders near Las Cruces
1988 At least 16,000 band-tailed pigeons California First major epizootic of trichomoniasis in this species.
1991 Approximately 500 mourning doves North Carolina --

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Species Affected

Trichomoniasis is considered by many avian disease specialists to be the most important disease of mourning doves in North America. Band-tailed pigeons have also suffered large-scale losses from trichomoniasis. This disease has been reported as a cause of mortality in birds of prey for hundreds of years prior to the causative organism being identified. Songbirds are less commonly reported to be infected, but T. gallinae is reported to be the most important trichomonad of caged birds; it is often responsible for epizootics among captive collections. Domestic turkeys and chickens also become infected.

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Distribution

It is likely that T. gallinae is found wherever domestic pigeons and mourning doves are found. Disease in free-ranging wild birds is grossly underreported. Outbreaks at birdfeeding stations and similar locations reported to the National Wildlife Health Center have occurred from coast-to-coast within the United States (Fig. 25.3).

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Seasonality

Epizootics due to T. gallinae can happen yearround, but most outbreaks have been reported during late spring, summer, and fall.

Figure 25.1
Click Illustration for full-page viewRelative frequency of trichomoniasis in free-ranging birds.

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Field Signs

Because oral lesions often affect the ability of the bird to feed, infected birds lose weight, appear listless, and stand grouped together. These birds often appear ruffled. Caseous or cheesy, yellowish lesions may be seen around the beak or eyes of mourning doves and the face may appear "puffy" and distended (Fig. 25.4). Severely infected pigeons may fall over when they are forced to move.

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Gross Lesions

The severity and appearance of lesions varies with the virulence of the strain of the parasite, the stage of infection, and the age of the bird. The most visible lesions from mildly pathogenic strains may simply appear as excess salivation and inflammation of the mucosa or lining of the mouth and throat. Early oral lesions appear as small, well defined, cream to yellowish spots on the mucosal surface (Fig. 25.5A). As the disease progresses the lesions become larger, thicker, and are caseous (consistency of cheese) in appearance (Fig.25.5B). In more advanced lesions, a wet, sticky type of discharge and nodules within the mouth are characteristic of acute disease. Hard, cheesy lesions are most often seen in more chronic infections. Although lesions are generally confined to the inside of the mouth and esophagus, they can extend externally to the beak and eyes and be confused with avian pox (see Chapter 19: Avian Pox).

Early lesions of the pharynx to the crop are also cream to yellow in color and caseous. As the disease progresses, these lesions may spread to the esophagus (Fig. 25.5C), and can eventually block its opening (Fig. 25.5D). A bird can suffocate if the blockage is severe enough. A bird will starve when these masses prevent it from swallowing food and water. These large, caseous masses may invade the roof of the mouth and sinuses (Fig. 25.5E) and even penetrate through the base of the skull into the brain. Also, a large amount of fluid may accumulate in the crop of severely infected birds. Lesions may extend down the alimentary tract and the parasite may invade the liver, particularly in domestic pigeons. Other organs such as the lungs, occasionally become involved. The digestive tract below the proventriculus is rarely involved.

Figure 25.2 .
Click Illustration for full-page viewTransmission of trichomoniasis.

 

Figure 25.3
Click Illustration for full-page viewLocations of outbreaks of trichomoniasis in free-ranging birds, January 1983 through March 1997.

 

Figure 25.4
Click Photo for full-page viewMourning doves at a backyard waterbath. Note the puffy appearance (arrow) of the face of a T.gallinae infected dove.

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Diagnosis

A tentative diagnosis can be made for doves and pigeons on the basis of finding caseous, obstructive lesions within the upper areas of the digestive tract. However, other disease agents such as pox virus, Aspergillus sp. fungi, Candida sp. yeasts, nematodes of the genus Capillaria, and vitamin A deficiency can produce similar lesions. Diagnosis is established by finding the trichomonads in the saliva or smears of the caseous lesions of infected birds. Specimens are best taken from sick birds, or from recently dead birds that are kept chilled and reach the diagnostic laboratory within 48 hours after death. Samples of tissues with lesions preserved in 10 percent buffered formalin or frozen whole carcasses can be used if fresh carcasses cannot be provided.

Figure 25.5 Gross lesions of trichomoniasis in mourning doves. (A) Small, cream-colored lesion on oral mucosa (arrow). (B) Large, caseous lesions in back of mouth (Arrow). (C) Large lesion in upper esophagus (arrow). (D) Occlusion of esophagus by a large, caseous lesion. (E) Lesions on the roof of the mouth, in the region of the sinuses (arrow).
Click Photo for full-page view(A) Click Photo for full-page view(B) Click Photo for full-page view(C) Click Photo for full-page view(D) Click Photo for full-page view(E)

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Control

The removal of infected birds is recommended for combating trichomoniasis in poultry and captive pigeons and in captive collections of wild birds. The focus in both instances is on birds that harbor virulent strains of the parasite. Elimination of infection from adult birds by drug treatment has also been recommended, but this is not a practical approach for wild birds. Prevention of the build-up of large concentrations of doves at birdfeeders and artificial watering areas is recommended to minimize disease transmission in the wild. Stock tanks, livestock feedlots, grain storage facilities and clusters of urban birdfeeders should be targeted for disease prevention activities. Although the environmental persistence for T. gallinae is rather limited, contaminated feed is suspected as a significant source of disease transmission. Therefore, fresh feed should be placed in feeders daily, if it is practical. Platforms and other surfaces where feed may collect, including the area under feeders, should be frequently decontaminated with 10 percent solution of household bleach in water, preferably just prior to placing clean feed in the feeder. Pigeons and doves are high risk food sources for birds of prey; therefore, before they are fed to raptors, pigeons and doves should be inspected first and found to be free of trichomoniasis or other infectious diseases.

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Human Health Considerations

None. T. gallinae has not been reported to infect humans.

Supplementary Reading

  • Conti, J.A., 1993, Diseases, parasites, and contaminants, in
    Baskett, T.S., and others, eds., Ecology and management of the
    mourning dove: Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Books, p. 205–224.
  • Levine, N.D., 1985, Flagellates: the trichomonads in veterinary
    protozoology: Ames, Iowa, Iowa State University Press, p. 72–74.
  • Pokras, M.A., Wheeldon, E.B., and Sedgwick, C.J., 1993, Raptor
    biomedicine, in Redig, P.T. and others, eds., Trichomoniasis in
    owls: report on a number of clinical cases and a survey of the
    literature: Minneapolis, Minn., University Minnesota Press,
    p. 88–91.
  • Rupier, D.J., and W.M. Harmon, 1988, Prevalence of Trichomonas
    gallinae
    in central California mourning doves: California Fish
    and Game, v. 74, no. 4, p. 471–473.
  • Stabler, R.M., 1951, A survey of Colorado band-tailed Pigeons,
    mourning doves, and wild common pigeons for Trichomonas
    gallinae
    : Journal of Parasitology, v. 37, p. 471–473.

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