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Understanding Immune System Support

Many issues in bird nutrition are surrounded by myths and misunderstanding. Malcolm Green of The Bird care Company attempts to shed some light on the important factors for bird keepers.

All of our birds are going to be exposed to germs at some time or another. While good hygiene can reduce this, the bird's natural defence mechanisms are critical to maintaining good health. So the immune system is probably the most important weapon we have against viral, bacterial and fungal infections. Sadly it is probably the least recognised option in aviculture.

The immune system is working all the time to protect you and your bird from invading organisms. To describe it as a single 'system' is something of an oversimplification. It actually works at a number of different levels.

Your bird's first line of defence is its skin and the membranes that line the surfaces of the gut and respiratory tract (a sort of internal skin). Apart from being a barrier the cells in these surfaces produce chemicals that kill many germs. Natural antibiotics if you like.

For cell membranes to function effectively they need an adequate supply of vitamin A. Since dry seeds contain virtually not vitamin A it is not surprising that the immune system of many cage and aviary birds is not very effective!

The vast majority of germs and many toxic chemicals should be cut off by this first line of defence. However some get in through cuts or simply overwhelm the system so the second line of defence is the white blood cells. There are lots of different white blood cells and they operate in many different ways. To simplify the subject I will briefly describe three mechanisms.

In the first 'attack white blood' cells literally surround and devour the invading germs. This is really easy to understand though the mechanism by which the invader is recognised is very complex.

The battle becomes much more difficult when the invading germs have entered your bird's cells. Viruses use the host's cells to multiply. At this point the host cells themselves have to be destroyed by white cells. This is the stage in your common cold when you, not surprisingly, have a very sore throat. It may hurt but this sore throat is evidence that your immune system is engaged in the battle.

At the third level yet other types of white cells produce antibodies. These are proteins that lock onto the germs and prevent them from invading the host's cells. These are the equivalent of 'smart bombs'.

Unless the immune system has been invaded by the same germ before, the design, development and production of antibodies takes time as each new germ needs a tailor-made solution. Once an antibody has been produced its design is stored away in another type of white cells. Amazingly the body may only retain three cells amongst trillions with each magic formulation in it but, when the same germ strikes again, the production of antibodies is rapid and effective. This is the principle behind vaccination. Unfortunately the development and licensing of vaccines is extremely expensive so only a few bird diseases have been covered. No cage bird vaccines are licensed in the UK and very few in other countries.

One key issue about immunity is that the system needs to be challenged regularly for it to function efficiently. This is why birds kept in totally sterile environments are very vulnerable to contact with other birds from less hygienic aviaries. So hygiene is a balancing act. Too clean is bad. Too Dirty is bad!

Supporting the immune system

So what can we do to enable our birds to mount an effective immune response when faced with a germ invasion?

The first thing is to get the fundamental nutrition right. Birds that are vitamin and mineral deficient simply cannot respond effectively. Their cell walls will be poorly formed and they cannot repel invaders or fight back rapidly. Producing billions of white cells in a short period of time will be impossible.

Sadly, through lack of knowledge, most cage and aviary birds around the world are not fed satisfactory diets. Research in America suggests that the number of malnourished birds is as high as 98%! Bird vets will tell you that 90% of the cases they see have malnutrition as the basis of their illness. This does not mean that bird keepers don't care, it simply highlights the lack of good information available.

Secondly we can help by minimising stress. Stress reduces the immune response. This can be caused by poor housing, moulting, breeding, poor nutrition (again), overcrowding, changes in housing or companionship, over exposure to germs and a host of other factors. Visiting shows and other travel related issues often create stress for birds.

It is commonly reported that many drugs depress the immune response. So care should always be taken when considering whether drugs or immune support are the best options.

The biggest problem with stress is that it feeds on itself. A stressed bird gets ill. Illness causes stress. It is not surprising that some birds die so quickly!

Many wild animals are capable of treating themselves when they get ill. Somehow they are able to identify plants and other materials that help them feel better. Many of these are plants that, if eaten in large quantities , would be poisonous to the animal. However, in moderation, they hurt the germs more than the host. People who want to read more about this should read 'Wild Health' by Cindy Engel.

Unfortunately our captive birds are unlikely to have the freedom of choice and food selection to respond to sickness in this way. We could respond to sickness in our birds by using appropriate herbs but this requires excellent stockmanship (to detect the problem early) and a detailed knowledge of herbal medicine. However by carefully selecting safe herbs The Birdcare Company is able to give natural support to birds as part of their regular diet. These herbs can prevent some specific diseases, support the digestive system (prebiotics) and help the immune system. We incorporate some of these ingredients into our regular use products as a matter of course.

You have read an enormous amount about white blood cells in this article. For them to have a powerful impact on disease they need to be produced in their billions in a very short period of time. Each cell has to be complete so all the raw materials required for cell production must be available in adequate quantities. Partly we are back to the basic nutrition story again. More importantly each new cell need a complete compliment of genetic material. This can very quickly get into short supply especially when the bird is under infectious attack. So, when birds get infectious diseases, we recommend products with extra quantities of these key ingredients. We call this our 'white cell support system'.

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