University of Guelph experts weigh in on avian flu risk in pets and humans

Migration season is underway and scientists warn it could fuel the spread and evolution of avian influenza.

“Because we have birds moving this time of year, it creates some added risk,” said Scott Weese, a professor at the Ontario Veterinary College and the University of Guelph. “We’re getting birds coming in from areas where they may have more flu activity.”

The disease has led to a devastating global outbreak that shows no signs of slowing down.

“It varies, what it does to different bird species,” Weese explained. “In many it can kill them fairly quickly and we’ve seen fairly large scale deaths in some areas with certain types of birds.”

There are also concerns about the threat to pets and even humans.

Earlier this week a dog in Ontario died after testing positive for H5N1, the virus that causes the bird flu, after it chewed on a wild goose.

However health officials warn that the risk of transmission to pets remains low.

“We are hoping that it will never be able to adapt itself to mammals because if it does adapt itself to mammals then we are probably looking at a virus that has a potential pandemic,” said Shayan Sharif, an avian immunologist at the University of Guelph and the Ontario Veterinary College.

As for the risk to humans, it’s not out of the realm of possibility but a fair amount of mutation would be required.

“That would be extremely, extremely disconcerting because this virus, in terms of its capacity for causing disease and potentially causing death, is not even comparable to SARS-COV-2, which led to COVID-19,” explained Sharif. “Case fatality rates for this virus would be much higher than fatality rates for COVID-19.”

Experts said lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic are being used to protect against avian influenza.

“Research groups, including my own research group, are looking at new platforms for vaccine development for poultry, and hopefully humans, in the future,” added Sharif.

To limit the spread and risks of the bird flu, pet owners are advised to avoid areas with large numbers of birds or even places with lots of bird feces.

Raw meat from birds or other poultry is also not recommended.

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