Questions and Answers about Avian Influenza (Bird Flu) and Animals

Updated: September 2008

What is seasonal human flu?

Seasonal flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by human influenza viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness and at times can lead to death. Human flu viruses change a little bit every year which is why people can get sick from the flu more than once. It is also why a new flu vaccine is produced each year; the vaccine must be made to protect against the particular viruses circulating that year.

What is avian influenza (bird flu)?

Avian influenza, also called bird flu, is a disease of birds, usually wild ducks and geese. Sometimes, this disease can also spread from wild birds into domestic poultry. Although bird flu and human flu are both influenza viruses, each virus generally affects either birds or people, not both. There is a type of bird flu called Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) type H5N1 (also called H5N1 bird flu) that has made many birds and a few people sick elsewhere in the world.

Is highly pathogenic H5N1 the same as bird flu?

Like human influenza viruses, there are many types of avian influenza viruses. One strain of severe bird flu, called highly pathogenic H5N1, has been circulating in Asia since 1997 and has spread to Europe and Africa.

What does highly pathogenic mean?

Avian influenza viruses are categorized based on their genetic makeup, impact on bird health and other factors as being either "highly pathogenic avian influenza" (HPAI) or "low pathogenic avian influenza" (LPAI). Most avian flu viruses found in wild ducks and geese are categorized as LPAI and do not cause obvious illness in infected birds. Some of these will mutate into highly pathogenic forms which cause severe clinical illness and death in birds, particularly poultry species.

Is highly pathogenic avian influenza, H5N1 bird flu, present in New York?

The highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), type H5N1 bird flu has not been found in the United States. Other strains of bird flu are commonly found in wild waterfowl in the United States, but usually affect small numbers of birds and generally do not cause obvious illness. These other types of bird flu are not considered a human health risk. The HPAI H5N1 bird flu is now circulating in Asia, Europe and Africa.

Is the highly pathogenic avian influenza, H5N1 bird flu, present in the United States?

No, this type of bird flu has not been found in the United States. LPAI virus strains are commonly found in wild birds and sometimes in domestic poultry in the United States. These mild strains of avian influenza usually affect small numbers of birds and generally do not cause obvious illness. LPAI viruses are not considered a human health risk.

What state agencies are responsible for detecting and controlling highly pathogenic avian influenza, H5N1 bird flu, in humans and animals in New York?

In New York State, the departments of Health (NYSDOH) , Agriculture and Markets (NYSDAM) , and Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) have a joint task force, called the Task Force on Zoonotic and Emerging Disease Surveillance, or ZEDS, to focus on and coordinate surveillance for zoonotic diseases, which are diseases that are communicable from animals to humans.

In 2005, a special subcommittee was formed to bring even greater focus to the issue of avian influenza and to coordinate surveillance efforts. This ZEDS workgroup was instrumental in developing the chapter in the NYSDOH's pandemic influenza plan dealing with HPAI in animals.

This ZEDS workgroup continues to work on avian influenza plans in New York for the state and federal agencies responsible for surveillance and control. In addition to the workgroup, these agencies have distinct, coordinated responsibilities for aspects of avian influenza:

  • The NYSDOH is responsible for reducing the impact of avian influenza infection on human health.
  • The NYSDEC is responsible for conducting surveillance and testing for diseases among wild birds, including avian influenza.
  • The NYSDAM is responsible for maintaining an active program to identify, control and eradicate avian influenza on poultry farms and in live poultry markets.
  • NYSDAM requires that every flock of poultry be tested and found negative for avian influenza before any bird can be moved into the live poultry market system. The NYSDAM also tests for avian influenza within the live poultry market system in New York. In addition, the agency is actively testing for avian influenza in poultry flocks on both large commercial and other poultry farms.

Are you going to test dead wild birds for bird flu?

State and federal agriculture and wildlife agencies have developed a surveillance strategy and are routinely testing certain wild birds in New York State and across the country for bird flu so that if HPAI H5N1 occurs in the United States it will be recognized. Most birds do not need to be tested.

What birds are being tested?

Waterfowl, such as ducks and geese, are a top priority to be tested for avian influenza. The vast majority of backyard birds – robins, sparrows, pigeons, cardinals, etc. — do not need to be reported or tested. Avian influenza usually involves migratory waterfowl, not backyard or song birds. If you are concerned about dead waterfowl in your area, contact your regional Department of Environmental Conservation office.

Can pets get bird flu?

Yes. In some places where HPAI H5N1 bird flu has occurred, a dog, some cats, and other mammals have gotten sick and died after eating infected birds.

Can my pets get vaccinated against bird flu?

No, but there are things you can do to protect your pet.

What can I do to protect my pets from bird flu?

If you are worried about your pets, do not let them roam outside where they could be exposed to, or eat the remains of sick or dead wildlife. Many diseases can cause wild birds and other animals to get sick and die, and some of these diseases could be spread to pets that run free.

Can my pet give me bird flu?

There have been no confirmed cases of bird flu transmission between humans and pets. If HPAI H5N1 bird flu occurs in our country it will be important to protect pets from possible exposure to sick birds and wildlife so that they will not get infected.

How do I know that animals from a pet store don't have bird flu?

HPAI type H5N1 has not been identified in pet birds in the United States. Only purchase imported birds if you are sure they have been legally imported into this country. Importation of pet birds is banned from countries where HPAI H5N1 has been identified. Pet birds legally imported from other countries (excluding Canada) are required to enter 30 day quarantine. It's always best to make sure your pet has been checked by a veterinarian prior to purchase. There have been no confirmed cases of bird flu being transmitted from pet birds to humans.

My pet has been exposed to a dead bird, can my pet be tested?

Routine testing of pets for bird flu is neither necessary nor currently available. If you have concerns about your pet's health, it is best to contact a veterinarian.

I found a dead bird in my yard – what should I do?

First, there is no need to report a dead bird unless it is a crow. Dead crow reports help us to track West Nile virus, so please call your local health department if you see a dead crow. Other types of birds do not have to be reported unless there are many dead birds in the same area. Call your regional Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) office if you see a lot of dead birds in the same place. You may also visit the NYSDEC Web site for contact information for regional offices. DEC will decide if testing is needed. To dispose of a dead bird, use a shovel and wear gloves to double-bag the dead bird and throw it in the trash, or bury it at least three feet deep, away from a stream or other water source. Always wash your hands with soap and water after disposing of a dead bird in this way.

Should we stop feeding birds and not have bird feeders?

There is no need to change your normal practices for feeding backyard birds at this time. If the HPAI H5N1 bird flu does occur in our country, experts may have different advice, depending on what has been learned about the possible role of wild birds in spreading bird flu to humans or domestic animals.

Should I feed ducks, geese and other waterfowl?

Unlike backyard birds, waterfowl are more likely to be infected when bird flu is present. There are many reasons that you should not feed ducks and geese. Feeding ducks and geese increases the chance of spreading many diseases that are common among waterfowl. It makes them tame and may cause them to become a nuisance as they lose their natural behaviors. It is best to enjoy your local wildlife from a distance!

Should I stop hunting waterfowl?

No. However, waterfowl hunters should always take simple precautions to protect themselves from exposure to disease, including:

  • Do not handle obviously sick birds or birds found dead.
  • Keep your game birds cool, clean and dry.
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke while cleaning harvested waterfowl.
  • Wear rubber gloves when cleaning waterfowl.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after cleaning waterfowl.
  • Clean up tools and surfaces immediately with hot, soapy water and disinfect with a mixture of 10 percent household chlorine bleach in water.
  • Thoroughly cook harvested waterfowl (165° Fahrenheit).

There are a lot of pigeons around. Am I at risk for bird flu from them?

No, right now the H5N1 bird flu is not present in the United States. Even if bird flu arrives here, pigeons will likely not be the highest risk species. Waterfowl, such as swans, ducks and geese, are the type of birds that are most likely to become sick with bird flu. Although pigeons may be affected by bird flu less often than waterfowl, it is always best to minimize contact with fecal material. Always use gloves when handling ill or dead birds or handling/cleaning up bird droppings, and wash your hands with soap and water immediately afterward. Because we are still learning about the bird flu virus, experts may have different advice if it arrives here, depending on what has been learned about the role of wild birds in spreading bird flu to humans.

Can I get bird flu from my neighbor's birds and animals?

No, you don't have to be concerned that a neighbor's poultry and animals will expose you to bird flu at this time. If HPAI H5N1 bird flu does occur in our country, additional guidance from experts will be developed. Bird flu is primarily a disease among birds and rarely spreads to other animals and humans. Most people who have been infected with bird flu have come into direct, prolonged contact with infected chickens or ducks or have been exposed to heavily contaminated environments.

With the concern over bird flu, is it safe for my child to take part in projects that involve hatching eggs and raising chicks?

Yes. Chickens that get infected with bird flu become ill and often stop laying eggs so there is little risk of contracting bird flu from handling eggs from healthy birds. However, chicks can carry other disease agents such as Salmonella. Projects involving hatching eggs and raising chicks should minimize hand contact and require thorough hand washing after contact occurs.

With the concern over bird flu, is it safe to eat poultry and eggs?

Yes. There is no evidence that properly cooked poultry or eggs can be a source of infection from bird flu. Because other common diseases such as Salmonella infection can be spread by eating undercooked poultry or eggs, always cook them thoroughly. Wash your hands with soap and hot water after touching any raw meat. Make sure to clean cutting boards and counters used for food preparation immediately after use to prevent cross contamination with other foods.

Can I get bird flu from Canada goose droppings in parks, ballparks, reservoirs and other public places?

No. Right now, the HPAI H5N1 bird flu is not present in the United States. If and when it does occur in our country, we hope to have learned more about the role of wild birds in spreading bird flu to humans. Because many different bacteria, viruses and parasites can be present in bird droppings, it is best to avoid exposure to them at all times. The following precautions should be taken:

  • Teach children to always wash their hands after playing outside.
  • If you pick up droppings, use a shovel, "pooper scooper," or gloves – never use your bare hands.
  • If you are worried about exposure during swimming, swim at a regulated beach where regular tests are conducted to make sure the water is not polluted from human, animal or farm waste.