Avian Influenza

What is Avian Influenza?

Avian influenza is a disease in birds caused by a virus that primarily infects wild birds (such as ducks, geese) as well as domestic/commercial poultry. Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) A(H5N1) is an influenza subtype known to kill both wild birds and commercial poultry. This virus occurs naturally among wild aquatic birds worldwide and can infect poultry and other bird species.

Avian Influenza in Humans

Avian influenza does not typically transmit from birds to humans. An avian influenza outbreak in birds does not imply that there will be a human outbreak. Avian influenza is caused by different virus subtypes than seasonal influenza in humans. The current strains of influenza A(H5N1) circulating in the world have only rarely led to human infection. Human-to-human transmission appears to be even more rare. The risk of avian influenza A(H5N1) infection to persons in Canada is very low. Most human cases of avian influenza have been traced to unprotected direct contact with infected birds, surfaces heavily contaminated with avian influenza viruses, or droppings from infected birds. The transmission of avian influenza viruses to people from eating uncooked or undercooked eggs or poultry is unlikely. However, proper safe food handling practices such as hand washing and keeping poultry and egg products separate from other food products to avoid cross contamination should be followed as a general practice, particularly to avoid gastrointestinal infection with bacteria like Salmonella.

Individuals having unprotected direct contact with infected birds or surfaces heavily contaminated with avian influenza viruses should self-monitor for symptoms of avian influenza for 14 days after their last exposure to the infected birds or contaminated environmental surfaces.

Human symptoms of Avian Influenza

Symptoms of avian influenza are similar to those of seasonal influenza and may include fever, chills, runny nose, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, diarrhea, vomiting, red/watery eyes, or difficulty breathing.

If symptoms develop and you have had exposure to an infected bird or poultry premises, contact your health care provider to arrange testing. Individuals should notify their health care provider of their exposure history and symptoms in advance to ensure that appropriate precautions can be put in place.

Individuals having unprotected direct contact with infected birds or surfaces heavily contaminated with avian influenza viruses should self-monitor for symptoms of avian influenza for 14 days after their last exposure to the infected birds or contaminated environmental surfaces.

Protecting Your Health

As a general guideline, members of the public should avoid handling live, sick, or dead wild birds. If contact with wild birds is unavoidable, wear gloves or use a doubled plastic bag and avoid contact with blood, body fluids, and feces. You should then wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water.

While the annual human influenza vaccine does not protect against avian influenza, it will help prevent you from getting seasonal influenza.
Here are some general guidelines for avoiding communicable diseases:

  • Get your flu shot every year
  • Wash your hands with soap and warm running water thoroughly and often
  • An alcohol-based sanitizer (60-90% alcohol) should only be used if no visible dirt is present on the hands
  • Practice proper cough and sneeze etiquette (sneeze/ cough into your elbow)
  • Stay at home when you are sick

For additional guidance relevant to reducing the risk of respiratory viruses, please visit the RSV, Influenza and COVID-19 - Reducing the risk of respiratory viruses web page.

Reporting Sick or Dead Birds

It is very important that people avoid handling live or dead wild birds. If you see a wild bird, including waterfowl, that is sick, injured, or dead, do not touch it. Report any sick or dead birds (including waterfowl), to the Ontario Regional Centre of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative at 1-866-673-4781 in Ontario or 1-877-346-6763 in Quebec or online at cwha.rcsf.ca.

Food Safety Considerations

Transmission of avian influenza to people from the consumption of eggs or poultry is unlikely. As a general practice, food safety measures should always be practiced when handling poultry and egg products such as:

  • Always wash hands before cooking or eating.
  • Wash hands before and after handling uncooked poultry and egg products for at least 20 seconds with warm, soapy water
  • Keep uncooked poultry and egg products separate from other food products to prevent cross-contamination
  • Clean and sanitize all surfaces and utensils with hot, soapy water and a household sanitizer (e.g., bleach and water solution)
  • Cook poultry pieces to a minimum internal temperature of 74°C (165°F) and whole poultry to 82°C (180°F); use a probe thermometer to confirm cooking temperatures.

Avian influenza in pet birds

It is very difficult for your pet bird to catch avian influenza if you take sensible precautions such as keeping birds, food, and water bowls indoors. Pet birds that are kept indoors are unlikely to have any contact with wild birds. As well, take precautions not to introduce any material, food or clothing that may have been contaminated by wild birds.

While HPAI is primarily a disease of birds, it can also infect mammals, especially those who hunt, scavenge, or otherwise consume infected birds. For example, cats that go outdoors may hunt and consume an infected bird, or dogs may scavenge dead birds. If your pet has found a sick or dead bird or other wildlife, report it to your regional avian influenza hotline or the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC).

While most HPAI H5N1 cases in mammals involve direct contact with infected birds, exposure to heavily contaminated environments (e.g., ponds or other bird congregation areas) could also potentially lead to infection.

Clinical signs in mammalian pets such as cats and dogs may include:

  • Fever
  • lethargy
  • conjunctivitis
  • lack of appetite
  • difficulty breathing
  • neurological signs (e.g. tremors, seizures)
  • death

Pet owners should contact their veterinarian if they have any concerns about the health of their pets. Pet owners should not feed pets (e.g., dogs or cats) any raw meat from game birds or poultry. Keeping cats indoors and dogs on a leash helps to protect your pet by preventing access to potentially infected wild birds or their carcasses.

Resource Links

Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) - Pets and H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) April 2023

Ministry of Health - Highly Pathogenic H5N1 Avian Influenza Frequently Asked Questions (March 2023)

World Health Organization (WHO) – Human health information

World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) – Animal health information

Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC)

Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) – Domestic birds

Ontario Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) – Domestic birds

Avian Influenza Resources - Avian Influenza - Emergency Planning and Preparedness - Programs and Services - Health Care Professionals - Ministry of Health

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) – Wild birds

Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC) – Wild birds

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Contact Us