Pigeon rotavirus in Western Australia

The Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia (DAFWA) has been assisting the pigeon racing and fancying industries in diagnosing and managing disease caused by a rotavirus in pigeons. Since mid-2016, high levels of mortalities in kept pigeons (racing and fancy) have occurred in a number of lofts across Australia.

The pigeon disease was first reported to DAFWA in May and June 2016, with several lofts of birds showing diarrhoea, regurgitation and death. Mortalities were variable, but were up to 20% in some lofts.

Affected birds were submitted to DAFWA Diagnostic Laboratory Services - Animal pathology unit, which carried out full post-mortem examination and sampling. The provisional diagnosis was viral hepatitis.

DAFWA undertook the following actions to assist the pigeon industry: 

  • undertook an extensive epidemiological investigation to determine the likely source and cause (viral) of disease
  • made biosecurity recommendations to WA pigeon industry representatives in order to prevent further spread of the disease
  • undertook laboratory testing to rule out the reportable diseases avian influenza, pigeon paramyxovirus type 1 and Newcastle disease
  • undertook comprehensive testing to identify the virus
  • undertook an international literature review of potentially similar cases.

As testing showed reportable diseases that require regulatory control were not involved, DAFWA did not impose any regulatory conditions and the WA pigeon industry undertook to manage the disease on an industry basis.

DAFWA Diagnostic Laboratory Services - Animal pathology unit (DDLS) then performed intensive virological and molecular investigations including:

  • histopathology
  • electron microscopy
  • molecular testing [(polymerase chain reaction (PCR), next generation sequencing)]
  • viral culture
  • bacterial culture.

DDLS routinely refers appropriate samples for specialist testing to other laboratories when necessary. In this case, samples were sent to laboratories including CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratories (AAHL) and Charles Sturt University.

Laboratory testing conducted in 2016 suggested a reovirus as the most likely cause of disease in pigeons, however this was not able to be definitively confirmed. Subsequent PCR testing in 2017 by AAHL and DAFWA DDLS of a selection of WA cases from 2016 confirmed the virus to be pigeon rotavirus serotype G18P. Rotaviruses are a member of the reovirus family.

All laboratory testing that involves ruling out emergency animal diseases and investigating new and emerging diseases, such as in this investigation, is provided free of charge by DAFWA.

For previous updates provided to WA industry representatives, including biosecurity advice given, please see the attached document links.

Testing being undertaken in other jurisdictions

DAFWA has been notified of similar pigeon disease and mortalities in other states which have also been diagnosed as pigeon rotavirus serotype G18P. 

Bird owners urged to report sick birds

Rotavirus in pigeons is not a reportable disease so the WA pigeon industry will continue to prevent spread of the virus by maintaining good biosecurity practices. Clinical signs in affected birds have included depression, vomiting, diarrhoea, regurgitation and hunched postures. Sick birds usually died within 12 to 24 hours, with deaths in affected lofts continuing for approximately 7 days.

There is no vaccine currently available to protect birds against this virus. It is understood that the pigeon industry is currently investigating opportunities to develop a new vaccine. Australia has a rigorous regulatory framework for assessing and approving veterinary vaccines to ensure their safety and efficacy. As part of this, there are strict penalties for the illegal importation and use of veterinary vaccines, including but not limited to up to 10 years imprisonment and fines of up to $1,800,000 under the Biosecurity Act 2015 (Cwlth). 

It is important for bird keepers to continue to report any suspicious signs of disease so that the reportable diseases avian influenza, pigeon paramyxovirus type 1 and Newcastle disease can continue to be ruled out.

Where an emergency animal disease or a new or emerging disease is suspected, DAFWA provides laboratory testing free of charge.

You can report sick birds with higher than usual numbers of deaths to your private veterinarian, your local DAFWA veterinarian or the Emergency Animal Disease hotline on 1800 675 888.

Livestock Biosecurity contacts can be found on the Livestock Biosecurity contacts webpage.

Contact information

Emily Glass
+61 (0)8 9368 3360
Page last updated: Thursday, 30 March 2017 - 5:13pm