Alberta wildlife centre treating fox kits that became infected with avian influenza

A central Alberta wildlife centre is caring for four young foxes, two of which are on the mend after contracting avian flu.

Staff at the Medicine River Wildlife Centre south of Red Deer say they're starting to see more scavengers needing treatment, and suspect it's because the animals are eating carcasses of birds that died from avian flu.

The organization's executive director Carol Kelly says there were seven fox kits brought in who had consumed an infected bird.

"Two were normal, five were showing the symptoms – and the symptoms for them is blindness and seizures," said Kelly. "Three of them died shortly after arrival, but two have completely recovered."

Kelly says it was hard to diagnose the kits when the first one was found dead on a road.

"Our first assumption was he'd been hit by a car, and then another one came in with exactly the same symptoms, and we thought 'This is weird' – and then more came," she said.

Staff consulted other rehab facilities in the province to confirm their suspicion that the foxes were infected with avian influenza.

"The good thing is, foxes don't pass it on," Kelly said. "They just suffer from it, and if they're given some supportive care and it's not too late, they can recover."

Kelly says that care includes administering a lot of fluids to the kits, and then nursing them back to health with a good diet and water.

However, it's not the same for the magpies, crows, ravens, owls or hawks brought in; they have to be put into the facility's quarantine area and assessed.

Kelly says there isn't much staff can do for those animals, so they're often euthanized and the carcasses incinerated.

Dayna Goldsmith is a diagnostic pathologist at the University of Calgary who has studied many birds who've died after being infected.

"This particular strain is really targeting the brain of these birds," said Goldsmith. "They're getting a lot of inflammation in the brain, so birds that can't fly, that are really weak, that are behaving abnormally because of that inflammation in the brain – which is reported with influenza, but it's not classically what we think of with the flu."

Alberta is one of the provinces that has been hardest hit by avian influenza.

As of May 12, 937,000 birds in Alberta had been culled from 24 farms, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), and as of May 13, there were 28 infected flocks in Alberta.

Goldsmith believes cases of avian flu will likely decrease as the spring migration comes to an end. But says it's important for people to take precautions when finding a dead bird, and to report where it was found to the province's 310-0000 toll-free number.

"We're still keeping track of the locations where these animals are dying," she said. "Partly just for documentation purposes, but also to inform the poultry industry in terms of areas that they should be increasing their surveillance on the production animal side."

Kelly says she is hearing from many Albertans who want to know how to protect themselves from avian influenza.

"We're just recommending to people to just be clean, use proper sanitation," said Kelly. "If you're cleaning out your old bird boxes from last year, I doubt if there's any issue with that, but there still is dust, there still are other things, so use gloves, put a dust mask on wash your hands. Just be just be sanitary."