CFIA says to not feed dogs raw poultry. What about mink farms?

Canadian fur farm. Photo credit: We Animals Media

In what has been called one of the worst disease outbreaks in history for wildlife, H5N1 (avian flu) continues to spread across Canada and the world, infecting farmed and wild birds, wild mammals, and companion animals.

After a dog died from H5N1 in Ontario, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) issued a warning to Canadians: don’t feed dogs raw poultry. The agency’s information page about pets and H5N1 outlines precautions that pet owners should take including:

  • “Pet owners should not feed pets (e.g. dogs or cats) any raw meat from game birds or poultry.
  • “Keeping cats indoors and dogs on a leash helps to protect your pet by preventing access to potentially infected wild birds or their carcasses.”

It also highlights the paths of transmission:

  • “Birds spread avian influenza viruses through their feces and secretions (mucus, saliva).
  • “While HPAI is primarily a disease of birds, it can also infect mammals, especially those who hunt, scavenge or otherwise consume infected birds.”

While this is important information for Canadians to be aware of, the same messaging doesn’t appear to have been communicated for mink farms. Here’s why that’s a problem.

Feeding raw chicken and pig meat to mink

The fur farm industry feeds raw animal byproducts (including poultry) to mink and promotes this as being environmentally friendly. But this “nothing is wasted” greenwashing may actually be a public health risk to Canadians, as viruses can be transmitted to mink from raw meat products.

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In 2007, a strain of swine flu was discovered in mink in the Nova Scotia mink farm sector. The researchers who studied the outbreak found that the virus was likely transmitted from pigs to mink from the raw pig products that fur farmers fed to mink. A recommendation from the researchers was issued:

“In the future, the mink industry should be careful with respect to their management procedures, including the use of slaughterhouse uncooked meat by-products, to avoid emerging diseases in mink which might favor the appearance of pathogens, such as influenza virus, that could have a harmful impact on public health safety.”

A 2021 study found that mink are susceptible host species for the mixing of viruses and that the feed on mink farms is a likely source of transmission of avian flu viruses. The authors of the study call for a ban on feeding raw poultry to mink. They write:

“In summary, mink as a host species is highly susceptible and permissive to circulating human and avian influenza viruses. To avoid serious public health threats from the emergence of highly pathogenic virus reassortants, basic preventative husbandry steps, such as a ban on the use of raw poultry feed, along with regular virus surveillance of mink farms should be urgently implemented.”

A further risk of mink farms is their exposure to wildlife infected with H5N1.

Farmed mink exposure to infected wildlife

Exposed mink cages on a Canadian fur farm. Photo credit: We Animals Media.

Many mink farms have open-sided sheds where birds and other wildlife animals can come into contact with mink. Birds may nest in the sheds, fly into them and drop feces into the mink cages and feed below, or mink may be able to grab and eat birds that land on the outside their cages.

In 2022, a mink farm with 50,000 mink in Spain experienced an outbreak of H5N1 among mink. Although the source of the outbreak wasn’t established, research into the outbreak suggests that infected wild birds may have introduced the virus to the farm. The researchers studying the outbreak of H5N1 in Spain write:

“…it can be assumed that wild birds may have played a major role in the virus introduction into the farm. This hypothesis is further supported given that minks were farmed in a partially open building and may have been in contact with wild birds.”

“Experimental and field evidence have demonstrated that minks are susceptible and permissive to both avian and human influenza A viruses, leading to the theory that this species could serve as a potential mixing vessel for the interspecies transmission among birds, mammals and human. In light of this and considering the ongoing HPAI H5N1 panzootic, our findings further highlight the importance of preventing mink infection with such viruses.”

Fur farming is still a public health threat

Whether it’s through feed or through exposure to infected wildlife, fur farming continues to present a public health threat to Canadians: a ticking time bomb.

The risks identified by the CFIA for pets’ exposure to infected wildlife and the precautions for Canadians seem to have been overlooked for mink farms.

British Columbia became the first province in Canada to ban mink farming over its public health threat after numerous mink farms experienced SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks. With both SARS-CoV-2 and H5N1 viruses circulating in our communities, and fur farms still operating coast to coast with virtually zero oversight, the risks of fur farming are ever present.

The federal government and its agencies need to act on these risks and transition away from fur farming. The Fur-Bearers published a report looking at other countries that have transitioned away from fur farming. It’s time for Canada to learn the lessons from other jurisdictions and move fur farming into the past, for the sake of animals, the environment, and all Canadians.

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