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Bird Flu Alert: Is Your Pet at Risk?

With bird flu dominating news headlines once again, many pet owners are wondering about the risks of bird flu in dogs and cats. While cases of avian flu in pets are rare, it’s important for pet owners to be educated. Let’s discuss what bird flu is, how it can be transmitted to pets, and what preventative steps pet owners can take against the virus.

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What is bird flu?

Bird flu is the common name for avian influenza, a flu virus that primarily affects birds and is found worldwide. It is a type A influenza virus with both low and high pathogenic forms. Bird flu is also sometimes referred to by its strain, H5N1. Signs of the virus in birds include lethargy, inappetence, respiratory symptoms like coughing or sneezing, neurological symptoms like seizures or tremors, gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea, swelling and purple discoloration of the body, and decreased or abnormal egg production. Sudden death with little to no warning signs can also occur.

Avian influenza can be found in both wild (especially aquatic flocks) and domestic birds, with outbreaks occurring among poultry farms and backyard 'hobby' flocks. Bird flu can also spread to other mammals, such as cows, goats, dogs, cats, and even humans.

How is bird flu transmitted to pets?

Bird flu transmission to pets can occur through contact with an infected bird (alive or deceased). This can be directly (interacting with the bird) or indirectly through contact with an area the bird was in, such as a dog sniffing around a chicken coop or a cat disturbing a wild nesting site. Birds shed the virus through their saliva, nasal secretions, and feces.

Cases of bird flu in cats and dogs typically occur from sniffing or licking infected birds or their habitat or by eating dead birds that were infected. While rare, pet birds can also contract the bird flu virus if they have contact with infected wild birds or other animals carrying the virus. This might occur on an open patio or if another resident animal in the house, like a dog or cat, brought the virus home after being outdoors.

Bird flu risks to pets

While the recent outbreaks of bird flu are something to keep an eye on, the risk to pets remains relatively low, even among those residing near farms or wild bird habitats. However, because this is a fluid situation, pet owners are urged to stay informed on any outbreaks in their area and learn the signs of bird flu in pets.

You can track the latest updates on bird flu through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You can also check for outbreaks in your area through the United States Department of Agriculture.

Signs of bird flu in pets

Regardless of whether you live near an outbreak area, it’s always good to learn what bird flu symptoms in pets can look like.

Symptoms of bird flu in dogs and cats:

  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Inappetance
  • Respiratory symptoms (coughing, runny nose, sneezing, difficulty breathing, and others)
  • Conjunctivitis (red, itchy, or inflamed eyes, typically accompanied by discharge)
  • Seizures

Symptoms of bird flu in pet birds:

  • Lethargy
  • Inappetance
  • Respiratory symptoms (coughing, runny nose, sneezing, difficulty breathing, and similar)
  • Lack of coordination
  • Swelling
  • Purple discoloration
  • Inability to perch (lying on cage floor)
  • Diarrhea
  • Unkempt or ruffled feathers

If your pet is showing any of these symptoms, contact your veterinarian right away, even if there has been no bird flu detected in your area or your pet has not had any contact with wild birds.

Other respiratory illnesses can have similar symptoms to bird flu, including canine influenza in dogs, feline upper respiratory infections in cats, and avian respiratory diseases in birds. Having your pet evaluated by a veterinarian for accurate diagnosis and treatment is essential.

Depending on the situation, your location, and the capabilities of your veterinary clinic, your pet may be referred to a specialty veterinary hospital for handling. Your veterinarian and local animal health officials may institute a testing protocol, quarantine, and supportive care for symptoms.

What are the treatment options for pets with bird flu?

There is no specific treatment for bird flu in pets, only supportive care. Depending on the severity of a pet’s condition, they may be hospitalized for monitoring, diagnostic testing, and management of symptoms. Supportive care might include things like fluids to prevent dehydration, medications to treat fever, pain, and inflammation, and breathing treatments for respiratory symptoms. In the rare instance that your pet was to contract bird flu, your veterinarian would recommend a supportive care plan based on their individual clinical signs and test results.

Bird flu prevention for pets

While avian influenza risks for pets remain low, it’s good to learn how to protect pets from bird flu — especially if you live in an area with lots of wild birds or near a farm.

Tips for preventing bird flu in pets:

  • Keep cats indoors. Outdoor cats are much more likely to be exposed to wild birds than indoor cats. To give cats some outdoor time without the risk of them chasing birds, consider keeping them in an enclosed patio or getting a 'catio,' an outdoor enclosure made for cats.
  • Always leash dogs on walks. Unleashed dogs are more likely to come into contact with wild birds or even pick up or eat dead birds they might find.
  • Keep pet birds away from wild birds. If you live in an area with lots of wild birds, use caution during outdoor time with your pet bird. Consider an enclosed patio or allowing them to perch near a screened window instead.
  • Pick up any outdoor food or water bowls. Any sources of food or water left outside may attract wildlife to your property, including birds. If you have pets that spend time outside, be sure to pick up any food or water bowls once they come inside.
  • Use caution around ponds. Ponds where waterfowl frequent, such as ducks and geese, can be breeding grounds for not only avian flu but other types of viruses and bacteria that can be harmful to pets. It’s best to keep pets away from ponds, especially dogs, which may be tempted to go for a swim.
  • Keep pets away from livestock. If you live on or near a farm or keep backyard chickens, limit contact between your flock and any cats, dogs, or pet birds that also reside in the home.
  • Report any sick birds. If you notice wild birds in your area displaying signs of bird flu or you’re finding dead birds, contact your local government wildlife agency or call the USDA hotline: 1-866-536-7593.

Should I be worried about bird flu for my pets?

While recent headlines about avian flu outbreaks can be scary, most pet owners needn’t worry about bird flu. According to the most current reports from the USDA, bird flu cases among mammals remain low. The CDC also regards the current public health risk of bird flu as low.

Of course, as we’ve all learned through the COVID-19 pandemic in recent years, viruses can be unpredictable. While recent outbreaks of bird flu are not a cause for concern for most people, it’s always smart to stay informed and practice good hygiene — for both you and your pets.


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