Avian flu has returned to the UK. The Chief Veterinary Officers of Scotland, England and Wales have ordered that all poultry and pet birds are housed indoors and strict hygiene practices adopted to control and eradicate this strain. These measures are effective from 12.01 on the 14th of December 2020. So what is the impact on other pet birds – and their owners?

What’s the risk?

The present H5N8 influenza strain is of low risk to humans. Infected migrating birds have brought it to the UK. The virus is spread by direct contact with saliva, nasal discharge, blood or the faeces of infected birds. Keeping birds indoors prevents any contact with wild birds. Surfaces can be contaminated with bodily fluids or faeces so houses must be regularly cleaned and disinfectants must be used on all hard surfaces. Control of rats and mice is also important as the virus can be carried on their bodies if they are in contact with wild birds bodily fluids or faeces. 

As avian flu is a significant threat to the poultry industry, the government test dead wild birds and bird populations where 5 or more birds die in a short space of time. This surveillance has identified a high risk of disease in the wild bird population and medium risk to poultry. Culls have been carried out in Cheshire, Herefordshire, Leicestershire and North Yorkshire.  

What about pet birds?

Pet birds who live in a family home are unlikely to have any contact with wild birds. Their only contact with contaminated material could be through food, cage furniture or you. Do not store your food anywhere where wild birds roost or fly. Similarly, with food and water bowls, keep them indoors at all times. If you see a dead bird or visibly sick bird, do not pick it up or handle it. A dead bird, or the death of more than 5 birds in any population, must be reported to DEFRA so that they can be tested.

How can I keep mine safe?

Migrating waterfowl such as ducks, geese, swans and gulls usually carry the disease, but all birds can catch it. Disinfect your shoes after walking in parks or near lakes frequented by wildfowl. Do not attend any bird gatherings such as shows or sales. These are currently banned. If you have backyard or commercial poultry, change your clothes and wash your hands before handling your pet bird. If you have any cold or flu symptoms, wash your hands regularly and handle your bird as little as possible. It is unlikely that you are carrying an avian flu strain but it would present as cold symptoms in people. 

What should I do?

If your pet bird usually lives in an aviary, they should be moved indoors while the disease is prevalent and the housing regulations are in place. Do not use your aviary as a flying area during the outbreak as wild bird contact is possible. While your bird is housed indoors, clean the aviary and disinfect all hard surfaces in case any infected material contaminates it. Do not leave food or bedding in the aviary or nestbox in case it attracts vermin. 

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If you are adding to your bird population, avoid sellers of wild caught birds. Capture and captivity traumatises these birds as well as them potentially spreading avian flu to your birds. Source your new captive bred bird from a responsible seller or rescue centre where possible.

How can I help keep my birds healthy?

Keep your birds as healthy by feeding a high-quality diet with additional fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds. If you are moving birds indoors prevent overcrowding and provide them with enough space to be relaxed and comfortable. Keep them in a quiet peaceful area near a window if they are used to living outside. If you have a solitary bird spend time with them so they do not become bored and depressed. 

What signs should I watch out for?

You may suspect your bird has avian flu if they stop eating, have laboured breathing, head swelling, discharge form their eyes or nose and diarrhoea. Sudden death is common. It is very unlikely that your indoor bird has avian flu but if you see these symptoms, contact your avian vet. Your bird can be tested and treated. In the meantime they should be kept away from other birds. 

Bottom line:

It is very difficult for your pet bird to catch avian flu as long as you take sensible precautions. Take precautions not to introduce any material, food or clothing that may be contaminated by wild birds and they should be safe. 

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