Experts are advising British Columbians, and pet owners in particular, to take precautions after a recent case where several skunks died of avian flu in Metro Vancouver.
On Monday, the province said eight skunks in Vancouver and nearby Richmond had died, likely after scavenging dead wild birds, and they all tested positive for the H5N1 avian influenza virus. They later confirmed the virus was the cause of the animals’ deaths.
The deaths of the skunks are part of an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian flu (HPAI) that has been affecting North America since last year, with thousands of birds culled in B.C. and significant impacts to the poultry industry.
As wild birds arrive in B.C. by the thousands for the annual spring migration, it’s leading to experts advising the public to be aware of the threat avian flu presents, and to calls for more robust surveillance of HPAI across the province.
“The good news is that, actually, for cats and dogs, the risk of highly pathogenic avian influenza is actually quite low,” said Hannah Weitzenfeld, the senior manager of animal health at the B.C. SPCA.
“We do want you to keep exercising your dogs and going out.”
Weitzenfeld added, however, that pets should be kept away from water sources where birds have congregated, as well as bird seed on the ground.
“The avian influenza virus, it can persist in the environment for a number of days — we don’t know exactly how many days,” she said. “If we are seeing bird droppings, then stay away from those.”
While Weitzenfeld says she isn’t aware of many cases of avian flu spreading from mammal to mammal, researchers looking into an outbreak at a European mink farm said the virus could have spread through the thousands of the animals there.
However, officials have said the risk to humans is very low at this time. Weitzenfeld says the case of feral skunks dying of avian flu underscores general advice for pet owners — limit all interactions with wildlife.
“We definitely want to keep our pets away, both for the sake of our pets and also for the sake of the wildlife, from a safety and a health perspective,” she said.
Weitzenfeld also says British Columbians should consider taking down their bird feeders, because they provide an opportunity for wild birds to congregate and spread the virus.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control previously advised people to make sure eggs and poultry dishes are well cooked and to boil untreated water from areas where wild birds gather.
As for eager cats who may want to jump on a wild bird? Weitzenfeld says a product called a cat bib — a special collar attachment that passively thwarts hunting — might come in handy.
“If you do see wildlife that is sick or deceased outside … do not touch them, just please call the wild bird hotline,” she added.
Professor asks for more surveillance
Peter Arcese, who teaches at the University of B.C.’s forestry department, said COVID-19 has taught us that viruses can linger for a long time, and that proper hygiene is important when dealing with potentially infected materials.
Arcese, who has previously worked with wild bird populations, says the current avian flu outbreak is hard to get under control, given it is largely spread by wild birds and not domesticated poultry.
He says that means a simple cull is unlikely, given the thousands of wild birds that visit B.C. every spring. The province is at the heart of the Western flyway — one of the major migratory paths for birds across the globe.
“I think that’s why surveillance programs and monitoring — to just try and understand the prevalence and number of varieties or strains out there — is probably an initial first step that would be prudent to take,” he told CBC News.
“These [novel pathogen outbreaks] are likely to become more common.”
Theresa Burns, the province’s chief veterinarian, said it’s likely avian flu will remain with B.C. residents into the fall this year. There are still restrictions in place across the province on events like bird auctions and poultry swaps.
The province recently committed $5 million to help farmers with animal diseases, which it says will help develop new disease control plans and research biosecurity measures.
Agriculture Minister Pam Alexis told a news conference that funding will start rolling out to farmers by the end of March.
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