By Dr. Esther Attard, with Dr. Linda Jacobson
We would also like to thank to Dr. Markus Luckwaldt and Dr. Scott Weese for their help.
As everyone is aware by now, there is a highly pathogenic strain of bird flu in Ontario right now, and it’s set to get worse as the migratory birds return over the next few weeks.
HPAI For Shelters – In a Nutshell:
- HPAI occurs in wild birds and birds that have access to the outdoors.
- It can be spread both by aerosol and direct contact, so infection control measures are basically a combination of COVID-type and parvo-type precautions. Wear a mask and eye protection around infected live birds. Gloves, hand hygiene and surface disinfection are essential for both live and dead birds. Ventilation is important, for example in vehicles.
- Watch for neurological disease, severely ill birds and sudden death, especially in groups.
- There is a current order to quarantine incoming birds. Ideally, new birds with no history of outdoor exposure should go directly into foster homes. Read more here.
- Report any suspected cases to OMAFRA or CFIA.
- For detailed PPE recommendations, see this Ministry of Health document
What is Avian Influenza?
Avian Influenza, commonly known as “bird flu”, is a contagious Type A influenza virus that affects domestic and wild birds. The virus is classified based on the severity of disease it causes in infected chickens. Strains can be low pathogenicity with mild signs or high pathogenicity causing severe signs and/or death. Highly pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) viruses can infect all avian species, although infections are particularly common among ducks, geese, swans, gulls and shorebirds. Wild birds can be infected with HPAI and be asymptomatic or show severe signs of disease. Some types of avian influenza viruses are zoonotic and can infect humans through direct or indirect exposure to infected animals, environments, or surfaces contaminated by feces.
What are signs of disease in a bird infected with Avian Influenza Virus?
- Lack of energy, movement or appetite
- Decreased egg production
- Swelling around the head, neck and eyes
- Coughing, gasping for air or sneezing
- Nervous signs, tremors or lack of coordination, falling over, head tilt, circling, paralysis, seizures
- Unexplained emaciation
- Open sores
- Discharge from the mouth, nose, ears, or vent
- Abnormal feathers
- Sudden death, clusters of unexpected bird mortality
- Birds can be asymptomatic carriers
HPAI is Reportable
HPAI is a reportable disease under the Health of Animals Act. All cases must be reported to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). If you suspect you have a case, contact Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) or CFIA.
Currently there is an order from OMAFRA controlling movement/comingling of birds in Ontario – this will be in place until May 9th and will likely be extended. Read letter to the City Manager, Toronto here.
OMAFRA Order – Important for Shelters
With respect to shelters, this means that incoming birds will have to stay in the shelter and be quarantined for 30 days while being kept separate from other birds. If birds are coming to us from homes and have no history of being outdoors or exposed to a backyard flock or wild birds, they could then be rehomed to a home with no other birds. For any stray hens that we receive, unfortunately we may not be able to place them due to HPAI and any orders in place.
If at all possible, healthy indoor birds should not come into shelters at all but should go directly to foster homes, with no other birds and no outdoor exposure. If they do need to come in, they should be kept away from other birds until a foster home can be found.
How do I Protect Myself and Others from Avian Influenza Virus?
- Annual flu vaccination
- Good personal hygiene
- Handwashing with proper technique after handling animals and before and after eating
- Coughing and sneezing into tissue followed by immediate disposal or into sleeve followed by handwashing
- Hand sanitizing
- Keeping physical distance when possible
- Mask wearing and not touching your face
- Avoid sharing food and utensils
- Staying home from work and away from animals when you are sick
- Wearing PPE (mask, eye protection, gloves) when working with sick animals
What are Concerns When Handling Dead Birds?
With dead birds, the risks are almost exclusively from direct contact. Routine dead animal handling and hygiene practices are key: gloves and hand hygiene. Enhanced precautions include addition of a mask and eye protection mainly to prevent inadvertent touching of the face, since aerosolization of virus is not a major concern.
If multiple birds, in particular shore birds or poultry, are found unexpectedly deceased then this would warrant additional precautions for the safety of people and to ensure the virus is not spread to other places via people or contaminated surfaces. Contact the Canadian Wildlife Health Co-operative about testing dead wild birds. Dead wild birds may be submitted to the CWHC for testing in a pilot surveillance program by the Ontario Animal Health Network (OAHN).
Priority for surveillance testing in wild birds found dead is:
- Water birds / migratory birds
- Large birds of prey
- Scavenger birds (crows, etc.)
- Groups (at least 3-5) of dead birds
- Birds with neuro signs
Any unusual situation in wild birds such as mass die-offs or birds with neuro signs will be reported to the CWHC and samples may be submitted. Mass die-offs in a backyard flock of hens will be reported to OMAFRA.
What are Concerns When Handling Live Birds?
Handling live infected birds adds an aerosol risk. Enhanced precautions include mask and eye protection even when driving. It would also be prudent to maximize ventilation in transport vehicles by rolling down the window and airing out the vehicle between calls.
Do You Think You May Have Been Exposed?
If you may have been exposed to infected birds and you have ‘flu-type symptoms, consider Avian Influenza as a possibility. Speak to your healthcare provider or local public health unit. The risk of this spreading in humans is low, but we need to do everything we can to avoid that!
How do I Prevent Passing Avian Influenza Between Birds?
- Do not transport birds who may be carriers of HPAI in the same transport as other birds.
- Wear PPE – mask, gloves, eye protection, and disposable gown when handling live birds especially those that appear sick with signs of Avian Influenza.
- Thorough disinfection of equipment and vehicle surfaces that have come into contact with the birds using 1:40 dilution and 5-10 minute contact time with Accel/Prevail.
- Change gloves and hand sanitizer/hand washing between handling birds from different sources.
Should we Continue to Take Birds that May be Able to be Rehabilitated to Wildlife Centres?
Yes, we should continue to take/direct birds that we think can be rehabilitated. Let them know the bird’s history and any observations you have made and they will then be responsible for further intake and screening protocols to protect themselves and their population of birds from the spread of Avian Influenza.
What do We Tell Residents with Backyard Chickens?
As a precaution you may want to refrain from having contact with these flocks. The flocks should have biosecurity measures in place. Here is a link on preventing and detecting disease in flocks and pet birds.