Avian flu showing up in mammals

Skunk walking and sniffing in grass Photo by Layne VR/Shutterstock.com

After several skunks and foxes were found sick in the Medicine River area, Alberta wildlife specialists were stumped. The animals were all experiencing blindness, seizures, and cloudy eyes. Eventually, three foxes died. Alberta Fish and Wildlife later confirmed with lab tests that five skunks had the avian flu.

“The avian flu here in Alberta hit everybody suddenly and there’s still an awful lot of unanswered questions,” says Carol Kelly, wildlife rehabilitator and executive director at the Medicine River Wildlife Centre in Spruce View, Alberta. “Animals and birds that scavenge dead birds can contract it.”

Two of the five sick foxes did eventually recover and were released, Kelly says. “The difference that we know so far is that mammals can recover from it and they do not pass it on the way birds do,” Kelly says.

The contagious strain of the avian influenza virus has been spreading across the country, affecting wild animals and farm poultry alike. The highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus is widespread, even affecting birds and wild animals in PEI.

“This isn’t the first time that we’ve had HPAI or avian influenza in Canada,” reassures Thom Luloff, senior wildlife biologist at the Kawartha Wildlife Centre and conservation biology professor at Fleming College. Luloff primarily teaches vertebrate biology and animals disease and pathology. “We’ve had avian influenza since 2005.”

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“We’re more interested in diseases now because we’re coming out of a pandemic,” the biologist adds.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency and stakeholders, like concerned poultry farmers, developed a “robust and effective” avian influenza strategy plan years ago, Luloff explains, referencing the pathogenic strain of the influenza virus from 2014/2015. “This isn’t the first time we’ve done this.”

Avian influenza, or bird flu, is most often found in waterfowl like ducks, geese and other shorebirds, Luloff says. Certain strains of the virus—like this year’s—can spread to poultry like chickens and turkeys. In early May, the Chicken Farmers of Canada reported the virus in nine provinces across Canada.

At the time of the interview, Luloff says the risk is “really for domesticated birds,” as there have not yet been any major mass mortality events in the wild.

“Wild ducks are known to be the principal reservoir for the global gene pool of all influenza avian viruses,” Luloff says. He reiterates that we should not feed ducks bread, or any wild animals anything at all. “We shouldn’t even be in contact with them,” he says. “They need to do what they need to do.”

“When we’re purposely making a connection [with wildlife],” he adds, “that is a problem. That breaks that separation that is supposed to exist between wild animals and anything that is domestic,” Luloff says, humans included. “It’s our pets, it’s our poultry—it’s us.”

We now know that the avian flu can affect foxes, which are canines, or dogs, but we haven’t seen it move into other species yet, Luloff says. “If we continue to keep our distance, that’s not something to be concerned about.” The more we interact, “the more likely something is to happen,” he says.

“If you have birds that have any contact with outside,” Luloff says, “you want to be very careful because these birds are highly vulnerable to infection and death.”

“You can’t do anything once they’re sick,” he adds. Birds with the highly transmissible virus sicken quickly and die quickly. “It’s always a good idea to be careful and clean with your feeders and your birdbaths in general,” Kelly says. Diseases can spread easily if feeders are not cleaned well or often, she adds.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the use of bird feeders is still safe on properties without domestic poultry. Birds Canada recommends regularly cleaning feeders, if you have them.

For now, Luloff recommends taking down feeders altogether, encouraging people to maintain a safe separation between domestic and wild life. “Prevention is the absolute best way to minimize issues with avian influenza,” Luloff says. “Let’s just enjoy the beauty of nature. Let wildlife do their wild thing.” For personal safety, Kelly advises hand washing and avoiding touching the face after handling any animal.

Birds affected by avian flu will have symptoms such as “unexplained emaciation”, head-twitching, poor balance, and weakness, Kelly says. If you encounter any birds exhibiting similar symptoms, she advises calling a professional. “Let’s appreciate wildlife and keep it wild,” Luloff says. “That is better for everybody.”

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