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You may have read or heard about avian influenza, ‘AI’ or ‘bird flu’, recently. But what is it? Well, just like humans, animals are sometimes prone to catching viruses and becoming unwell, and AI is, as the name implies, the bird version of the flu. It occurs naturally among wild aquatic birds like ducks, which can inadvertently infect domestic poultry and other birds by coming into contact with them.
Wild aquatic birds like ducks, geese, swans and gulls are the most common hosts for avian influenza, though some birds may be infected and not get sick. The problem is that this virus is extremely contagious and when it spreads to domesticated species like chickens and turkeys, they can get very sick and the virus can sadly kill them, too.
How Do Domestic Birds Catch Avian Influenza?
Domestic birds can become infected when they come in contact with infected birds. Just like with humans, flu can spread through direct contact or through surfaces that have been contaminated with the virus. (“Avian Influenza in Birds | Avian Influenza (Flu)”)
Where Does Bird Flu Exist?
Over the past, there have been recorded outbreaks of bird flu in Asia, Africa, North America and parts of Europe, including the UK.
Can Avian Influenza Be Transmitted To Humans?
It’s extremely rare for humans to catch bird flu, and those who have caught it were people who came into very close (and sustained) contact with sick birds, such as a gentleman in Devon who had 20 pet ducks living with him in his house. Cases of the virus spreading from person to person are even rarer still.
Other mammals like cats and dogs can occasionally catch the virus from eating infected birds, though the risk is low. But if your pet is a keen hunter, try to take steps to minimise this behaviour. You might find this study on how playing with your cat every day can reduce how much they hunt wildlife helpful. If you’re worried about a pet please call your vet immediately.
So What’s The Big Deal?
Although bird flu doesn’t pose a significant risk to human health, and many wild birds can carry the virus without getting ill, it can be deadly to farmed poultry.
What Precautions Are Being Taken Now To Limit the Spread of Avian Influenza?
To protect laying hens, turkeys and meat chickens from coming into contact with the virus (and to protect farmworkers too), they are kept indoors when the risk of catching avian influenza is high. This can last for weeks or even months during the winter, and the farmers need to follow strict biosecurity measures to ensure the birds’ safety.
Is That Fair on the Farmed Birds?
It can be very stressful for birds that are used to spending most of their time outdoors, to suddenly be inside all the time. That’s why we’ve been working with our members to ensure their farms are bird-flu-ready this year. We've been encouraging them to provide more enrichment such as extra perches and straw bales inside the barn to allow the birds to peck, forage, explore and express their natural behaviours.
What Difference Does Bird Flu Make to the RSPCA Assured Eggs, Chicken and Turkey that I Buy from the Supermarket?
You might notice that the free-range eggs, chicken and turkey you usually buy aren’t available, or that they are labelled differently. If birds are housed indoors for longer than the free-range marketing grace period of 16 weeks for eggs and 12 weeks for meat, they can no longer be labelled as ‘free-range’, for example. Just be sure to look for higher welfare labels like RSPCA Assured to make sure that the birds' welfare is a priority while they are indoors.
For anyone who keeps birds, whether as pets or in commercial flocks, it is essential to keep a close watch on them for signs of disease and also to maintain good biosecurity at all times. This is particularly relevant if your birds are in a Higher Risk Area (HRA). If you have any concerns about the health of your birds, seek prompt advice from your vet.
For more information on Avian Influenza, visit NFU Online for the latest news on avian influenza cases, what to do in a disease control zone and also find out more about nationwide enhanced biosecurity measures.