Dog owners are being warned to watch their pets very closely on walks as the UK grapples with its biggest ever outbreak of bird flu, which is now circulating heavily among seabirds.
Bird flu, according to the RSPCA, is becoming a serious problem this summer with high levels of illness and mortality, particularly in wildlife around the coast, with some reports also of the virus among seals and foxes.
Although the risk of bird flu for pet dogs is generally very low, this has prompted dog walkers to be extra cautious around wild birds, including advice to stay on trails and use leashes where there are has a large number of birds to reduce their exposure of the animal to creatures that could be infected.
An RSPCA spokesman said: “Avian influenza (AI) is primarily a disease of birds, although there have been reports of highly pathogenic AI in seals and foxes, so influenza avian can spread to other species.
“As some dogs may be attracted to – and pick up – dead or dying birds, the RSPCA always recommends keeping dogs under control around wildlife. Although the risk of your dog contracting AI is extremely low, your dog could be contaminated and spread it to Dead or dying birds can also carry a range of other diseases that could pose a health risk to your dog.
The latest figures from Defra have confirmed 102 cases of bird flu in England – although the exact figures among wildlife populations are more hazy.
Some restrictions for those housing chickens and other captive birds were lifted in early May – releasing wildlife into outdoor spaces or enclosures – but the outbreak continued to spread among wild birds which, according to the RSPB, is now having a ‘devastating impact’.
Jim Wardill, director of operations for RSPB England, said: “Bird flu is having a devastating impact on our seabirds – a population already under enormous pressure from human impacts including climate change, lack of fish prey, deaths from entanglement in fishing gear and developmental pressure. “
The scale of the outbreak has also prompted RSPCA centers to stop accepting sick gulls because of the risk – a decision the charity called “heartbreaking”.
In addition to limiting contact dogs can have with potentially infected poultry or waterfowl – either by playing or picking up a sick or dead bird – there are also concerns that pets could further spread the virus either on their coat, or by walking through infected bird droppings and transferring it.
The Department for Food and Rural Affairs is also advising bird watchers to also take precautions to minimize the risk of their pet – dog or cat – carrying the virus on their paws or the fur of their coat from the environment. to bird breeding areas, which would then risk infecting their poultry or other animals. While cats and dogs should also not be allowed to feed on infected or potentially infected raw poultry or waterfowl.
With weeks of summer ahead and a long spell of hot, dry weather forecast, which could attract more people to coastal venues, Kent County Council is among those advising dog walkers to be extremely vigilant.
A KCC spokesperson said: “Bird flu is currently impacting Kent’s wild bird population. The advice to members of the public is that if you find dead wild birds, including gulls, swans, ducks, geese or birds of prey, anywhere in Kent and the Medway, do not not touch and report it to your local district or borough council for clearance.
“Please watch your dogs closely in gardens and public areas to ensure they do not touch or pick up sick or dead birds. Stay on trails and keep dogs on a leash in high population areas. of wild birds.
“Bird flu is primarily a disease of birds that naturally circulates in the wild bird population and the UK Food Safety Agency (UKHSA) says the risk to human health is very low while the Food Standards Agency (FSA ) ensures that properly cooked poultry and eggs are safe to eat.