There have been a few large outbreaks of dead birds around Ontario lately, with botulism being the main suspect. In one area alone, up to 6000 dead birds have washed up on Georgian Bay beaches. While dramatic, it’s not a rare situation at this time of year, and typically relates to birds ingesting fish that died of botulism. When birds eat enough fish with enough botulinum toxin inside them, they can develop botulism themselves and die. This pattern can continue if dead birds are eaten by other animals.

In response to these events, I often get calls about risks to dogs and people. When thinking about it, it’s important to consider how botulism occurs. There are two main forms of botulism:

  1. Toxicoinfectious botulism involves growth of the Clostridium botulinum bacterium in the intestinal tract, and as the bacterium multiplies it produces toxin which can be absorbed  into the body through the intestinal wall. This type of botulism is rare in adults (both people and animals), since the mature intestinal bacterial population usually prevents C. botulinum from overgrowing. It’s mainly a risk in young individuals.  )This is why you’re not supposed to give honey to babies, since C. botulinum spores that can be present in honey can pose a risk to them.)
  2. The other form of botulism in from ingestion of botulinum toxin that’s already been produced. This is the most common form. When birds eat fish that have died of botulism, they ingest both the bacterium and its toxins, but it’s the toxins that make them ill and ultimately lead to death. Dead birds will probably have some C. botulinum in their intestinal tracts, but the main concern is the botulinum toxin in the rest of their tissues.

Dogs (and cats) are quite resistant to botulinum toxin, and reports of botulism in these species are rare. It would take a pretty large amount of toxin to cause disease (at least compared to many other species) but it’s not impossible. Casual contact with areas where birds have died is of basically no risk. Eating dead birds could pose some risk to the dog, depending on the amount eaten and how much toxin was present in the bodies. Ingestion of some C. botulinum bacteria in the birds is of limited concern.

So, walking in an area where birds have died is very low risk. People should ensure that their dogs don’t have uncontrolled access to areas where birds have died, so that they can’t eat lots of dead birds.

I also get questions about whether dogs that get exposed to beaches where birds have died pose any risk:

  • Even if a dog ate a lot of dead birds and got botulism, a person could only be exposed to that toxin by eating the dog – an unlikely event. The dog could ingest some C. botulinum bacterium, but this also poses minimal risk since the bacterium is pretty widespread and people can be exposed to it from many different sources. Even if a dog had some C. botulinum in its intestinal tract, avoiding contact with feces will reduce the risk of exposure. Even if there was some ingestion of C. botulinum from the feces, there’s little risk, especially to adults. Perhaps the main public health concern (which is still very low) would be exposure of infants to C. botulinum from dog feces or perhaps from a dog’s contaminated haircoat.

Bottom line: Keeping dogs and cats away from dead birds is a good idea, for several reasons, including botulism exposure, but there’s limited public health concern.

Image: Dead birds washed up on the shore of Georgian Bay, on the eastern side of Lake Huron (click for source)