Avian Influenza FAQ

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Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

As of this writing, more and more reports of avian influenza findings in domesticated flocks in the United States are being made, so it is important to stay apprised of current information. This FAQ is meant to serve as an introductory guide to avian influenza. Our full resource on the subject can be found here. While The Open Sanctuary Project strives to research and deliver the best, most accurate and accessible compassionate care information for animals, please note that we are not a licensed veterinary organization, our staff is not composed of veterinarians, and we do not wish to present our organization as such. We strongly recommend that you consult with your veterinarian to determine the best measures to take in your situation to protect your residents.

What is Avian Influenza?

Avian influenza refers to any disease or infection in birds caused by Type A influenza viruses. Virus strains are categorized as highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) or low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI.) Most Type A influenza viruses are low pathogenic, found worldwide, and can frequently be found in apparently healthy migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. In domesticated birds, low pathogenic AI viruses typically have low morbidity and mortality rates. HPAI however carries a high morbidity and mortality rate.

Highly pathogenic Eurasian H5 avian influenza was detected in wild birds in South and North Carolina in mid-January, 2022 after not being detected in a wild bird in the United States since 2016, and since then has been found in wild birds in multiple states on the east coast, and as of this writing, in domesticated flocks of birds in Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, New York, Maine and Delaware. For more information on current cases, please refer to the USDA APHIS website. We are also working to keep our full-length Avian Influenza resource updated to reflect affected states.

How Does Avian Influenza Manifest?

Many factors impact how avian influenza manifests including whether it is LPAI, HPAI, environmental factors, and the species, age, sex, health and acquired immunity status of the individual affected.

LPAI outcomes range from asymptomatic infections to more serious respiratory illness in birds. HPAI causes severe systemic disease and can result in widespread organ failure and sudden death. Clinical signs of disease in chickens, turkeys, and related species will vary depending on which specific organs and tissues are affected, and the extent of the damage done. 

Clinical signs of HPAI in chickens and turkeys can include:

  • Neurological symptoms such as head and neck tremors;
  • Inability to stand;
  • Unusual positioning of the head or extremities (such as arching the head backwards or twisting the neck);
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Listlessness;
  • Sudden drop in egg laying in actively laying hens;
  • Cyanosis (bluish discoloration of the skin) and edema of the head, comb, wattle, and snood;
  • Necrosis and hemorrhage of non-feathered skin;
  • Blood-tinged discharge from eyes and nares;
  • Sneezing, coughing, abnormal breathing sounds;
  • Green diarrhea;
  • Sudden death.

Domesticated ducks and geese typically show few clinical signs of AI and mortality rates from HPAI are generally lower, however highly pathogenic H5N1 can cause clinical disease in waterfowl with signs including:

  • Depression
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Neurological signs;
  • Sudden death;
  • Corneal opacity (noted in domesticated ducks.)

How Is Avian Influenza Spread?

Avian influenza is highly contagious and can spread easily within the same species and closely related species. Free-flying aquatic birds (such as migratory waterfowl and shorebirds) are the natural hosts. Infected birds shed the virus from their nares, mouth, conjunctiva, and cloaca. HPAI viruses have also been found in feathers, feather follicles, and preen glands. Susceptible birds can be infected via inhalation or ingestion of the virus resulting from direct contact with infected birds, or indirect contact through aerosol droplets or contaminated fomites

Is Avian Influenza Contagious to Humans? 

Transmission from birds to humans is possible, though uncommon. Humans can also become infected through an intermediate host and pigs are of particular concern in this respect. In general, we don’t recommend housing birds and pigs together, but especially during times when there is a high risk of HPAI, we strongly recommend that birds and pigs not share residential space. Observing careful hygiene (including handwashing) and wearing masks can mitigate risk of transmission.

What Biosecurity Measures Can I Implement To Protect My Avian Residents? 

Adhering to good biosecurity is always an important practice to protect sanctuary residents at any time. In times of increased risk, it is important to take additional measures to prevent residents from being exposed to the virus by:

  • Keeping residents in enclosed spaces with solid roofs and sides covered with window screen or mesh/netting that prevent wild birds and rodents from entering the space.
  • Protecting resident food and water from being accessed by wild birds, or from being exposed to feces and feathers from wild birds.
  • Storing food and bedding securely, in a manner to protect them from access by wild birds and other wildlife.
  • Keeping tools, crates, carriers and supplies protected in a secure area where they cannot be contaminated.
  • Keeping waterfowl residents separate from other bird residents, and preventing waterfowl residents from accessing ponds to which wild waterfowl also have access.
  • Mitigating the risk of spread due to human movement by limiting the number of humans coming to your property, creating a controlled access point and limiting vehicle access across the property. When vehicles must be allowed on your property, wheel wells and tires should be cleaned and disinfected at your controlled access point.
  • Only allowing essential staff/volunteers to enter bird living spaces, and considering having one person to care for non-waterfowl residents without coming into contact with waterfowl residents.
  • Not sharing or borrowing equipment.
  • Creating a protocol to prevent humans from spreading the virus on their shoes, clothes, and hands by, for example, asking caregivers to keep a clean set of clothing and shoes onsite into which they can change for caregiving activities and then clean at the end of their shift. Shoe coverings can be applied prior to entering bird living spaces, or appropriate and frequently changed footbaths can be used (after shoes have been thoroughly cleaned and scraped). Other measures include using protective gear, such as disposable tyvek suits, and handwashing before and after entry to living spaces, or using disposable gloves.
  • Keeping resident spaces and surrounding areas clean, dry, and well-maintained.
  • Using designated tools for each flock, or disinfecting tools between uses.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting food and water containers daily.
  • Addressing drainage issues to prevent standing water and puddles.
  • Keeping parking areas and access roads clean.

When choosing a disinfectant, be sure to choose one that is effective against avian influenza, as well as appropriate for your intended use. You can find more information about disinfectants registered for use against avian influenza at the EPA’s website here (as well as a link to a list of disinfectants). You can also read more about disinfectants and HPAI in Chapter 11 of this manual from The Food and Agriculture Organization of The United Nations. We recommend talking with your veterinarian about which disinfectant products to use, making sure you know what, if any, risks they pose to your residents and how those risks can be minimized or avoided. 

What Administrative Measures Can I Implement To Protect My Avian Residents?

Taking biosecurity measures with respect to your physical infrastructure is not the only way you can protect your avian residents. It is also important to take steps administratively to ensure that your measures are followed consistently and correctly, and that you are operating with as much helpful information as you can get. To this end, the following administrative measures are critical in protecting your residents. 

  • Have a written biosecurity plan to share with appropriate staff and update it as needed. In addition to working with your veterinarian to create the plan, you may want to have them sign off on it to demonstrate their involvement.
  • Make sure your staff and volunteers are properly trained and aware of all of your biosecurity protocols and procedures, and clearly communicate any changes when they are made.
  • Use clear signage to communicate your biosecurity measures.
  • Keep thorough written records of your biosecurity plan, logs of everyone who has been in contact with your residents, logs of vehicles who have entered sanctuary property, thorough resident health records and cleaning logs.
  • Adhere to strict quarantine protocols with respect to new intakes, and in consultation with your veterinarian, consider off site foster or whether it is wise to consider having new intakes tested for AI prior to transport to your sanctuary.
  • Communicate with your veterinarian with respect to your biosecurity plan, recordkeeping practices, and follow their advice on any additional measures they might suggest.

What If I Suspect One Of My Avian Residents Has Contracted Avian Influenza? 

If you suspect one of your residents may have avian influenza, isolate them immediately and consult with your veterinarian with respect to treatment. While there is no specific treatment for AI, supportive care and treatment of secondary infection may be necessary. Remember that veterinarians are subject to reporting requirements with respect to testing and that even suspected cases may have implications for the individual and their flockmates. It is absolutely critical to have a good isolation protocol in place and to have a good relationship with your veterinarian in order to ensure the well being of the resident in question, as well as the safety of the rest of your flock.

How Do I Learn More? 

For a more in depth treatment of avian influenza and biosecurity and administrative measures you can take to protect your residents, you can see our full resource found here. We strongly recommend that you have a conversation with your veterinarian about your avian influenza protocols, as well as what can happen if a resident were to test positive, so that you can fully understand the risks involved. We also recommend that you check in with your veterinarian and local officials (such as your state department of agriculture) regarding where to find the most up-to-date information on avian influenza findings in your area. You can also refer to The Organisation For World Animal Health (OIE) Situation Reports on Avian Influenza, as well as the USDA for ongoing reports. Another option is to set up Google alerts for avian influenza updates in your area.


Advanced Topics In Resident Health: Avian Influenza | The Open Sanctuary Project

Transmission of Avian Influenza A Viruses Between Animals and People | Centers For Disease Control And Prevention

Antimicrobial Products Registered for Disinfection Use Against Avian Influenza on Poultry Farms and Other Facilities | United States Environmental Protection Agency (Non-Compassionate Source)

Wild Bird Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Surveillance | Food And Agriculture Organization Of The United Nations (Non-Compassionate Source)

Updated on March 30, 2022

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