Maine pets are in danger of becoming the next victims of avian flu
Migrating wild birds are returning to Maine in the coming weeks, and may be bringing the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu with them.
As of February, 82 wild birds have tested positive for H5N1 in Maine. It has also been responsible for the direct death or euthanization of 600 birds from backyard or small farm poultry flocks in Maine.
But the recent death of a dog in Canada proves that the effects of avian flu can extend beyond bird populations.
The highly contagious virus, which was first detected in Maine in early 2022, has put the state’s poultry farmers and even residents with small backyard chicken coops on notice as they limit the possibility of wild birds infecting their own flocks. But as the threat of avian flu begins to grow again, even pet owners with dogs and outdoor cats should be on high alert.
A domestic dog died from avian flu in Ontario, Canada, last month after chewing on a wild goose infected with the virus. It’s proof that people should take steps to keep their pets safe from exposure, Tegwin Taylor, wildlife health biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife said.
“We certainly hope people are vigilant with what is happening not only with wild birds but with their backyard flocks,” Tegwin Taylor, wildlife health biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “We are starting to hear it’s picking up in the [Cape Cod] area so we are anticipating seeing it here in the next couple of weeks.”
In addition to the confirmed case in Ontario, Taylor there have been cases around the world of domestic cats dying from the disease.
“We know it’s rare, but there have been a few cases [of dog and cat deaths] in the U.S.,” she said. “All the cats were outside cats that had free range and the same for dogs — the exposure came from consuming an infected carcass.”
The current strain of the highly contagious virus — known scientifically as Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza H5N1 — is an influenza that affects poultry of all kinds, from wild birds to backyard and commercial flocks.
Wild birds can act as hosts to the virus, storing it in their digestive and respiratory tracts, and some fowl — such as ducks — can carry it and pass it to other birds without ever showing symptoms.
The virus can spread quickly throughout a flock by means of body fluids, such as bird droppings, mucus or even contact with eggs.
So far, there have been no confirmed human cases in the U.S.
People with domestic poultry should continue to isolate their birds from animals that could be carrying disease-causing pathogens, a practice known as biosecurity, Taylor said.
This includes keeping birds in enclosed coops or runs, covering those areas to protect them from wild bird droppings, not feeding wild birds on your property and cleaning up any birdseed that may have fallen on the ground.
In the wake of the Ontario dog’s death, biosecurity should now extend to pets, according to Taylor.
“Keep your cats inside [and] when it comes to dogs, keep them leashed, particularly in areas where there may be wild birds congregating,” she said. “Generally be smart about it [and] keep your dog contained and supervised so it can’t chew on or play with a potentially infected carcass.”
Since H5N1 is most commonly spread through feces of infected birds, a pet’s greatest risk would come from eating bird droppings or coming into direct contact by rolling in it or swimming in water contaminated with bird feces.
Care should also be taken with bird-hunting dogs, though the risk is low, Taylor said.
A study out of Alaska used a computer model to assess the risk of hunting and retrieving dogs contracting the disease in the field.
“As far as direct contact goes, the study shows there is minimal risk,” Taylor said. “Most bird dogs are not the ones that chew up [bird] carcasses.”
But hunters should remain vigilant and take time to disinfect their boots and clothes after spending time in areas of high waterfowl concentrations.
If a pet does contract avian flu, the prognosis depends on the level of exposure and how long the pet was in direct contact with the carrier.
“If it has grabbed an infected bird and you can get it out of its mouth quickly, it has a good chance of survival,” Taylor said. “But if there is a longer exposure there is a very good chance the pet will get very sick and possibly die.”
Avian flu did hit the state back in 2014, but Taylor said the current outbreak is very different.
“Last time it came in, stuck around for a few months and then left for good,” she said. “This one is stubborn and is infecting other animals.”
The best chance for the state to avoid widespread outbreaks is a long period of hot, dry weather.
“We are hoping the weather will help us out,” Taylor said. “But in the real world it is too early to tell and we know it is coming toward us up the coast.”