Avian Influenza in 2022

Avian Flu: Does the 2022 outbreak pose a health risk for pets and humans?

If you’ve been doom-scrolling the news lately, you may have heard about the “bird flu” making a resurgence in Canada and the United States. As we continue to slog through a sixth(!) wave of COVID-19, another wave of infection is making noise in the poultry and veterinary community – Avian Influenza.

We don’t want to be alarmist and we certainly don’t want to overstate the risks, but awareness of this specific new strain of bird flu should be addressed, as it can potentially affect the health of our clients and their pets. As they say, information doesn’t exist in a vacuum!

This new, highly transmissible strain of bird flu is spreading in farms and flocks across North America and killing poultry by the millions. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the risk of human/pet transmission remains very low.

First, the facts:

  • The first cases of avian flu in North America were verified at a farm in Newfoundland last December, after the sudden death of poultry over several days. A second outbreak was confirmed in NL in January 2022.
  • Since late 2021, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has acknowledged outbreaks of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza in a number of commercial and backyard poultry flocks in Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.
  • In March 2022, the first case of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) was confirmed in a poultry flock in Ontario.
  • In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported outbreaks in 24 states to date, killing nearly 23 million chickens and turkeys.

What is Avian Influenza (AI)?

Avian Influenza – better known as the “bird flu” – is a highly contagious viral infection that affects chickens and turkeys as well as migratory birds such as ducks and geese. It should be mentioned that Avian Influenza occurs naturally in many wild birds – just not this particular highly contagious strain.

The bird flu virus is spread through nasal discharges, saliva and fecal droppings. Because of the number of transmission vectors, it makes severe outbreaks of AI difficult to contain.

What is the difference between LPAI and HPAI bird flu?

Avian Influenza viruses can be classified into 2 groups:

  • Highly Pathogenic Avian influenza (HPAI) virus strains are very infectious, and often fatal to poultry as it can spread quickly from flock-to-flock.
  • Low Pathogenicity Avian Influenza (LPAI) virus strains occur naturally in wild migratory birds without causing illness. LPAI can infect domestic poultry, creating little or no signs of illness.

The new bird flu strain currently spreading in North America is a High Pathogenicity (HPAI) virus and has genetic features previously unseen from the bird flu epidemic of 2015. 50 million birds in the United States died that year.

How is the Avian Flu virus detected?

If you guessed it was similar to COVID-19 testing procedures, you’d be close. Instead of invasive nasal cavity swabs, testing for the avian flu usually includes swabbing the mouths and throat areas of poultry. These samples are then sent to independent labs to be analyzed.

Can Avian Flu spread to humans or pets?

According to the CFIA, birds shed the AI virus in their mucous, saliva and feces. Humans and pets can potentially get sick by breathing in the virus or with direct contact with their eyes, nose or mouth.

To keep from getting sick, avoid contact with wild birds (including the legions of pigeons in Toronto!), don’t touch dead – or dying – birds and avoid visiting poultry farms, if possible.

The risk to humans is very low, but Dr. Shayan Sharif, an immunologist at the Ontario Veterinary College cautions:

“…there isn’t evidence of the subtype spreading to humans, but if we have massive circulation of highly pathogenic viruses in our flocks, the chances for gaining such ability (to transmit to humans and pets) by the virus will enhance significantly.”

Since bird flu viruses have previously jumped to mammals, public health authorities are keeping a close watch for any signs of genetic variations that could lead to the virus infecting humans and pets in large numbers. The tiny fraction of human bird flu cases has been reported in people who work directly with birds, such as poultry workers.

Can infected animals – such as outdoor or feral cats – transmit the virus to humans?

The latest science suggests that the risk of a human being contracting AI from your family cat or dog is very low. However, pet parents are encouraged to be attentive and take appropriate precautions to protect their pets and themselves. If you suspect your pet has come in contact with bird poop or raw bird meat – especially outdoor cats – and exhibits symptoms, then contact us to schedule an appointment for a definitive diagnosis and treatment plan.

Is my outdoor cat at risk of Avian Influenza?

The following advice from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is offered to cat parents in areas where HPAI has been identified or suspected in poultry or wild birds:

  • do not handle any ill-looking or dead cat (or any other animal for that matter!)
  • don’t let stray cats inside your home and avoid all contact with them outside your home.
  • regularly (and thoroughly) wash hands with soap and water, especially after handling a possibly exposed cat and cleaning their litter boxes. Avoid contact with your cat’s feces or saliva.
  • if possible, make sure all contact with wild birds or poultry (or the feces) is avoided.
  • if your cat likes to bring home ‘presents’- a dead bird, perhaps – wear a pair of disposable gloves and put the bird in a plastic bag for disposal.
  • if your cat shows any respiratory distress or nasal discharge, consult our veterinarians.

Is it safe to use my bird feeder?

Avian Influenza does not affect all bird species in the same way. It can cause severe illness and death in domestic poultry flocks, but it is not considered a disease threat to feeder birds. The use of bird feeders, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada, is still safe on your property.

In any event, to help keep feeder birds healthy, you may want to clean feeders every two weeks or so to help curb the unlikely event of AI transmission. How? Wash feeders with a 10% chlorine bleach solution, rinse thoroughly and allow to dry before refilling.

Is it safe to eat poultry and eggs?

In Ontario, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs maintains that eggs and poultry cooked properly do not pose a threat to human health. 

What is being done to stop the spread of the Avian Flu virus?

No, chickens are NOT required to stay 2m apart.

The primary measures to stop the virus are biosecurity and quarantine. Actions include limiting access to poultry flocks and requiring farm workers to practice strict hygiene measures, such as wearing disposable boots and coveralls.

Control zones are also used as an effective method to isolate and prevent the spread of the bird flu.

According to the CFIA:

“a control zone is a defined area that is established to prevent the spread of animal disease from an infected area to areas free of the disease. Movement restrictions may be placed on certain products leaving, going into, or moving within the control zone.”

In Ontario, there are currently 13 Primary Control Zones (PCZ) zones (and growing) to map where the disease has taken root.

6 signs of a sick bird

It should go without saying: it is NOT in one’s best interest to touch a dead, injured or sick bird during this current Avian Flu wave.

Signs of Avian Influenza include:

  • anxiety, shakes and/or lack of coordination
  • inflammation around the head, neck and eyes
  • respiratory distress: coughing or sneezing
  • lack of energy or movement
  • diarrhea
  • sudden death

Reporting dead or sick birds:

For Canada: Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative information line 1-800-567-2033 or by using their online reporting tool.

In Ontario: the Ontario regional centre of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative at (866) 673-4781

Conclusion

The current Avian Flu outbreak across Canada and the Unites States has not reached a level of concern that would affect public health, unlike COVID-19. Although very serious for the poultry industry, this outbreak has not yet shown any indicators – or mutations – that might make them more likely jump to humans or pets.

For more information from a Canadian perspective, see CFIA’s Avian Flu Fact Sheet.

A comprehensive, detailed FAQ of bird flu by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) can be read here: Avian Influenza in Companion Animals.

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