Avian influenza is being detected across Canada in multiple species, raising concerns for birds and wildlife alike. Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken by individuals that can help reduce the spread and risks associated with the virus.
What is Avian Influenza?
Avian (or bird) flu is a generic term referring to zoonotic influenza viruses that can infect a range of bird species, according to the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health. The most recent strain of concern is H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), which has a mortality rate of up to 90 to 100 percent of infected birds. In the current outbreak in British Columbia (as of April 2022), more than 20 species of birds were infected. The virus was recently detected in Nova Scotia as well as Ontario, the latter of which led to the closure of bird exhibits at the Toronto Zoo. Across Canada, many species of wild animals have been infected with the virus including skunks, mink, seals, raccoons, black bears, and foxes.
While government agencies assure the risk of transmission to humans is low, the virus can transmit to other wildlife, as well as farmed animals and companion animals like cats and dogs. However, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency states, “the number of documented cases of [Avian influenza] H5N1 in non-avian species is very low despite the fact that this virus has caused large avian outbreaks globally.”
Fortunately, individuals can take some simple steps to help slow the spread of the virus and offer protection for local birds, wildlife, and pets:
1 Remove bird feeders, clean watering dishes. Bird feeders draw large groups of birds to a single location, increasing congregation of not just the birds themselves, but their feces (which carries the virus). The BC SPCA recommends removing and sanitizing bird feeders, and regularly cleaning and replacing water in baths or stands. Bird feeders also attract other wildlife, like rodents and animals who prey on birds, all of whom may be at risk for contracting HPAI. If you’re concerned about birds not having enough food, remember that through spring, summer, and fall there are a great number of natural food sources available for birds. Growing native plants, shrubs, and trees is a great way to support birds (and other wildlife) without directly feeding.
2 Keep cats indoors and dogs on leash. Preventing encounters between companion animals and wildlife (including birds) is the best way to prevent the spread of illnesses to our furry family members. Need help entertaining your cat indoors or safe ways to give them time outdoors? Check out this great article by domestic cat expert Jackson Galaxy.
3 Clean up outside. If you have a catio, deck or outdoor furniture your companions love, make sure to give them a good cleaning. Need help? Check out these easy solutions for cleaning decks and outdoor furniture. This is also a great opportunity to look for other attractants that may cause other wildlife to congregate.
Avian influenza’s spread is being monitored at the federal and provincial levels, but every one of us can play a role in reducing the deadly virus’ impact on wildlife in our communities.