August 2006
Pet Corner

Avian Flu and Companion Birds

Government officials from the United States and other countries have stopped importing live birds and bird products (like meat and eggs) from countries where there have been outbreaks of the H5N1 bird flu (influenza that is transmittable from birds to humans), but there still exists an illegal market for buying and selling exotic birds and other animals. On top of causing the birds severe trauma during their capture, transport, and sale, this practice could play a role in introducing any number of horrendous diseases — including avian flu — to people’s homes and aviaries.

The Wild Bird Conservation Act forbids illegal trade of wild birds in the United States, yet wild birds are often smuggled in and claimed to be bred in captivity. International trade of wild birds includes the illegal transfer of some 5 million to 7 million birds with dubious records.

In 2004, for example, a man was caught in Belgium trying to smuggle two wild-caught mountain hawk eagles in his hand luggage after buying the birds in a Thai market — both birds carried the deadly strain of H5N1. In 2005, Taiwanese, Chinese and Hong Kong authorities documented virulent H5N1 in pet birds such as mynahs, house crows and common magpies in pet bird markets. And last October, a macaw from Latin America died of H5N1 while in British quarantine and was likely infected in quarantine by birds from Taiwan.

Further, there has been a rash of smuggled live and dead poultry from China, as farmers try to unload their flocks before they are infected. In April, chickens seized in Vietnam smuggled from China tested positive for the virile bird flu. In March, U.S. authorities confiscated a smuggled shipment of chicken feet, labeled as "jellyfish," from Thailand into Connecticut.

The U.S. government now requires that customs officials test for H5N1 in statistically significant samples of birds entering the country. While thousands of samples are regularly taken, the United States has only one laboratory certified to conduct H5N1 tests — the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, located off the northeastern tip of New York’s Long Island.

As of now, the risk of contracting the strain of avian flu H5N1 is not particularly high for captive, housebound birds in the U.S. There are, however, factors that could cause the risk of infection to come into play.

Your pet bird could contract the avian flu if it is exposed to another bird that’s carrying the virus. To minimize the risk, do not allow your pet outside without the safety of his cage. If you place your bird’s cage outside, be sure to watch your bird closely and keep wild birds away. To be even surer of your safety and the safety of your pet, keep your bird and its food and water inside, away from any place where it could be exposed to infected migrating or domestic birds. Also, keep your pet bird’s cage clean, wash your hands after handling your pet bird or after having any contact with your bird’s secretions. If you have any questions about your bird’s health, talk with your veterinarian.