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Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Bird-Flu?

According to Dr. Michael Greger, we all should be

According to Dr. Michael Greger, we all should be

Bird flu hysteria is a terrible thing. If you’re the kind of person who thinks sparrows hopping around tables at outdoor cafes are charming, if you like to pet chickens and feed the wild birds in your backyard, and if you want to keep that happy perspective, tune out the mainstream news: The alarming nature of many recent reports will have you regarding chickens and their birdie brethren with suspicion. You’ll be surprised that their eyes don’t glow red, since they’re apparently bringing the apocalypse.

But while talk of bird flu can bring out Hitchcockian-level fears in an already jittery population, the good news is that paranoia about migratory flocks is most likely unwarranted. Wild birds may end up bringing the H5N1 virus to American shores, but they likely won’t bring it to us: The real fear about bird flu is not that some of us might get it from birds, but that the virus will mutate in a way that allows us to give it to each other. And while the disease started in birds, the birds themselves are not to blame. They’re merely unwitting accomplices to the villainous virus they may be carrying—a virus many suspect we humans created.

The history of avian influenza is both frightening and fascinating, and while the majority of the U.S. population is focused on the worst-case scenario—that the virus will mutate in a way that allows it to spread easily from human to human, causing a global pandemic—those involved in animal protection have reason for concern about an outbreak that only affects animals. Though the disease is certainly scary enough, what animal protectionists have to fear most right now is the public’s panic.

So far, the H5N1 virus has primarily spread from bird to bird, but every day seems to bring a new report of a new case in a new place—Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Turkey, France, Germany. Imagine the world as an electronic map with bird flu cases lighting up where they happen, and you’ll see that the lights are not only flashing more frequently but flashing in places closer and closer to the Americas. In mid-March, David Nabarro, the bird flu chief of the United Nations, told CBS News that bird flu could be in the U.S. within six to twelve months—possibly sooner.

According to Michael Greger, MD, the director of public health and animal agriculture at The HSUS and author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, strains of bird flu have presumably existed for millions of years without causing people any harm. In fact, it once didn’t tend to harm birds either: It existed as an intestinal infection in wild ducks, and the ducks would poop in waters that other waterfowl drank from. Thus the virus spread—what viruses most want to do—but caused no harm to the animals.

The big change in the path of this virus happened thanks to—you guessed it—human beings. When we domesticated the duck some 4,000 years ago, Greger says, the birds suddenly were forced into close contact with other land-based birds such as chickens. And the virus that had been harmless to ducks existed differently inside chickens. As an intestinal virus, it no longer had an effective way to spread itself, because chickens don’t sit in ponds all day. What came out of this unfortunate meeting of duck and chicken were new viral mutants, ones that attack all parts of the chicken’s body, including her lungs.

From Ducks to Chickens to People

Over the years, the virus has changed many times. But the situation we face now is basically this: Some migratory birds and domestic poultry in Europe and Asia may be excreting a virus that can be lethal to human beings.

“There’s this idiosyncrasy, there’s an evolutionary quirk that the respiratory tract of chickens on a molecular level, on a cell-receptor level, looks surprisingly similar to [that] of human beings,” says Greger. “It’s just kind of a weird quirk—evolutionarily, we’re very different species, but our respiratory tracts look very similar. … So as this virus gets better and better at infecting and killing chickens, it may also get better and better at infecting and killing us.”

And it’s happened before. Evidence uncovered last year suggests that the 1918 flu pandemic—which killed millions of people and is believed to be the worst disease outbreak in human history—was an avian flu. “So we kind of had this realization that the worst pandemic in history came from birds, and now we have this bird virus going everywhere,” says Greger.

Worse still, while the current iteration of the bird flu has a hard time making the jump to humans, when it does, it is highly lethal. “We are more concerned than we’ve ever been before … because in 1918, the worst plague in history, the mortality rate was about 2.5 percent; 2.5 percent of the people that got the disease died from it,” says Greger. The stakes are higher with the H5N1 strain of avian flu: 50 percent of the people known to be infected have died from it. And our world, unlike the world of 1918, includes such wonders as intercontinental air travel, making moving around easier for us—and for whatever nasty microscopic passengers we happen to be carrying.

As with so many other modern problems, much of the recent history of avian flu can be traced to the bad behavior of our own species. While migratory birds may carry the virus and excrete it, the virus has also spread against the path of migratory routes—a kind of transference that suggests links to poultry shipments, Greger says. When the virus breaks in an intensive confinement situation—such as those found inside factory farms—it spreads like wildfire; the next beak is literally inches away. And while that housing method is inhumane anywhere, it has particularly bad public health consequences in many parts of the world, Greger points out.

“Over the last few decades we have exported kind of the Tyson model of intensive poultry production to the developing world, particularly Thailand, which became the fourth largest exporter of poultry in the world,” says Greger. “And with that, we kind of have this worst-of-both-worlds scenario: We have the Western model of intensive confinement, but not the Western bio-security standards—which aren’t perfect, and we’ve had outbreaks here in the U.S. that involve millions of birds, but [they] get stamped out rather quick because we have surveillance, we have a veterinary infrastructure, we have testing, we have a public health infrastructure. … But you get that kind of model in say, China, and you have an even worse problem.”

While factory farms have been identified as the likely breeding ground for the H5N1 virus, other exploitative activities have helped it spread. In Southeast Asia, human cases have been traced to cockfighting; cockfighters occasionally suck the blood and mucus out of a fighting bird’s airways during a fight, causing several cases of a bird-to-human virus jump.

The Best-Case Scenario

Concerned about a coming flu pandemic, institutions like the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are tracking the spread of bird flu, hoping to contain it. While we in the animal protection field hope for the best, we should plan for the worst: Animal shelters should consider how they will continue to care for their animals if their community is quarantined; people may be unable to come to work, food supplies may run out, and shipment delays in the event of widespread human infection will likely be significant.

If the avian influenza virus doesn’t mutate into a form easily transmissible among humans, there will be no H5N1 pandemic. In this case, if the virus arrives on our shores, what we’ll see here instead is similar to what we’ve already seen in other countries: very rare sickness and death in people who work or live around poultry or who otherwise come into contact with sick birds. That group of people at risk, unfortunately, may include those who work in animal shelters and rescue wildlife. (See the basic hygiene and safety recommendations).

Some consequences of bird flu are likely to have a positive influence on the work of animal protectionists; cockfighters, for example, may have a tougher time arguing for their sport when people are getting sick and dying from participating in it. But other arenas of animal welfare may not fare so well in the midst of bird flu fright. People faced with the possibility of death and destruction do not behave rationally, and public panic could have serious consequences on the work of animal shelters and animal control, affecting everything from surrender rates to trap-neuter-release programs.

In Asia and Europe, several outdoor cats have contracted the disease after presumably making a meal out of sick birds; one in Germany died from H5N1. While there have been no confirmed cases of dogs falling ill from H5N1, the virus has been consistently surprising.

Officials in Germany have already asked that pet owners within a two-mile radius of the site of confirmed cases keep their cats inside, and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations speculates that stray cats may inadvertently spread the disease. If H5N1 arrives in the United States, health officials may recommend keeping cats in affected areas indoors. While an indoor-cat campaign sponsored by the U.S. government would be welcomed by many in the animal welfare community under normal circumstances, a mandate along these lines could have serious consequences for feral cats and their caretakers; those who’ve been working for years on developing trap-neuter-return programs may find their support vanishing overnight in the face of a feared flu epidemic.

What’s more, since the death of the cats in Germany, pet owners in Germany and France have been calling their local shelters with all sorts of questions: Do they need to give up their animals? What should they do to be safe and keep their pets healthy? According to some news reports, hundreds of people in affected countries have already surrendered their cats hoping to avoid getting sick. What if that starts happening here?

The HSUS strongly encourages people to read the materials available at the U.S. government’s website on planning for a flu pandemic. The current situation merits a calm and cautious approach, but if the virus mutates to become transmissible among humans, people will need to be prepared to care for themselves (and their pets) under home quarantine conditions. The website includes excellent recommendations for individual preparedness; generally speaking, people will need extended supplies of food, water, and basic medications for themselves and their animals.

Don’t Panic!

The most important thing we can do at this point is stay calm and encourage people not to panic, says Catherine Mullin, a resident in the UC Davis Shelter Medicine Program. Right now, H5N1 is not in the United States, and there is no evidence that humans can contract bird flu from cats. Fears of getting sick from kitty contact are, at this point, completely unwarranted.

If your organization is receiving questions from the public about bird flu and their own animals, it may be well worth your time to put out some good, calming information—either in a press release or on your website. In early March, the Cat Fanciers’ Association did just that, issuing a press release letting supporters and reporters know that, so far, “there are no reports of infected feral cat colonies in any of the countries affected by avian influenza.”

Even in the countries that have had outbreaks, Mullin points out, cats haven’t been dropping dead in droves. So far there have been only a few cases of cats getting sick, and even if the virus does reach our shores, sensible protective behaviors—such as keeping pet cats indoors (especially along migratory bird routes), not letting cats eat or play with dead birds, and not feeding cats raw chicken—can all reduce the risk of kitty infection. Keep an eye on the news so you will know if taking these measures becomes necessary in your community.

Right now, the biggest problem with avian influenza is that no one really knows what it’s going to do next. If it becomes transmissible from person to person, the crisis will be so enormous that animals may fall off the public’s radar completely. If it remains a bird-to-other-species disease, the problem will be greatly reduced but could still be potentially serious for those who work for and with animals.

If the bird-to-bird version of H5N1 flu comes to your part of the world, the following basic steps can help you stay as safe and healthy as possible.

Advice for those who handle animals in areas affected by H5N1:

  • Don’t handle dead or sick birds or cats without proper protection (including gloves and a face mask).
  • Disinfect your hands between handling birds and other animals.
  • Report dead birds to the local health department.
  • Make sure your organization has developed good disease prevention protocols—proper cleaning and disinfection, isolation of sick animals, etc. If avian influenza arrives in the U.S., these could make a huge difference for your shelter’s animal population.
  • Consider how your animal housing may affect the spread of disease: Are birds in your shelter kept away from other species?
  • Don’t dose animals in your kennels with anti-influenza drugs like Tamiflu, which has been known to cause the development of drug-resistant virus strains.
  • Don’t feed shelter animals (or your own pets) raw poultry.
  • Encourage the public not to panic, to practice good hygiene, and to keep their cats indoors.

General advice for everyone:

  • Stay up to date on breaking bird flu news through local and national coverage and the websites listed in the Resources section of this article. 
  • Exercise good personal hygiene, especially in H5N1-affected areas. Wash your hands with soap and water regularly, especially before eating and handling food. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough. Encourage kids to do the same.
  • If you eat chicken, make sure it’s handled in a way that prevents cross-contamination, and make sure it’s thoroughly cooked.


  • Cats can become infected with H5N1.
  • Keep pet cats indoors. This will prevent cats from stalking wild birds and from bringing home dead bird “treats.”
  • Do not feed cats raw poultry.
  • The virus can pass from cat to cat; be cautious about handling stray cats in H5N1-affected areas, and do not let your own cats come in contact with strays.
  • Advise the public not to touch sick or dead stray cats.
  • Consult a veterinarian if cats show signs of breathing trouble or nasal discharge.


  • It is not yet clear whether dogs are susceptible to H5N1.
  • Keep pet dogs indoors.
  • Do not feed dogs raw poultry.
  • Walk dogs on leashes to maintain control of sniffing and bird-chasing habits. Make sure contact between dogs and wild birds or poultry (or their feces) is avoided; don’t let dogs pick up dead birds or other animals.
  • Advise the public not to touch sick or dead stray dogs.

Pet Birds 

  • Pet birds can become infected with H5N1 if they are exposed to infected birds or their secretions.
  • Keep pet birds indoors and do not allow them to have any contact with wild birds.
  • Encourage pet owners to use caution when bringing new pet birds into the home. Birds fresh from the exotic bird trade may have been captured in areas that have experienced H5N1 outbreaks— or may have been exposed to the virus while in transport—so it's important to know as much as possible about an individual bird's history and to advise adopters to do the same.
  • Make sure everyone who touches your birds or maintains their cages has clean hands, clothes, and shoes (so they don’t accidentally track the germs from wild birds into your home or shelter).
  • Don’t share potentially contaminated supplies or housing with other bird owners.

Wild Birds

  • If you maintain a backyard bird feeder or bath in H5N1-affected areas, don’t let kids or pets come in contact with it or with the surrounding areas.
  • Wear gloves when you clean the bath or refill the feeder, and wash your hands afterwards.
  • Avoid physical contact with wild birds and their byproducts (i.e., dropped feathers, feces).
  • Keep children and pets away from wild birds, too, and avoid areas contaminated with wild bird excretions.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides general information about preparations for pandemic flu in the United States, including advice for private citizens. 
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s section on avian flu includes advice on protective measures for those who work around birds. Most of it focuses on poultry workers, but some of the information is useful to wildlife rescuers and animal control personnel.
The World Health Organization posts the latest avian influenza news from throughout the world.
The Food and Agricultural Organization offers information about cats and avian influenza.


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