In human medicine, a needlestick is a big deal. That’s not surprising because of concerns about transmission of bloodborne pathogens like hepatitis B and HIV.

  • In veterinary medicine…it’s largely considered a regular event that’s not a big deal.

Most of the time it’s not. It might hurt, but consequences are rare.

  • However, ‘rare’ and ‘non-existent’ aren’t the same (and if you’re the one that gets the ‘rare’ complication, it’s not good).

While most needlesticks from an animal just hurt, sometimes bad things happen, such as:

  • Infection from bacteria on the patient’s skin or the person’s skin (esp if the needlestick involves a joint, tendon sheath or other sensitive structure)
  • Allergic reaction to medications
  • Intended effect of a drug (e.g. sedative)
  • Adverse effect of the drug in people (e.g. people have died from inadvertent injection of the cattle antibiotic tilmicosin)

A recent case report in Clinical Infectious Diseases (Amoroso et al 2020) describes another issue, transmission of a patient’s infection to a vet. The exact scenario has been previously described (I mention it when I talk about these issues), but the new case report is a good reminder.

The veterinarian was performing a fine needle aspirate on a mass from a dog that was ultimately diagnosed with blastomycosis (a fungal infection caused by Blastomyces dermatitidis). That involves sticking a needle into the mass to ty to extract some cells for testing. During the process, she stuck her finger. Three weeks later, she went to her doctor because the finger was swollen and painful. She had surgery to open up the infected finger joint and testing revealed Blastomyces dermatitidis. Presumably the vet had informed her physician about the dog’s diagnosis, but surprisingly, that’s not always the case in occupational or pet-associated exposures. Sometimes important information like this isn’t passed on. Fortunately, the vet was treated with an antifungal and the infection resolved.

I try not to be alarmist when it comes to emerging diseases, but we can’t be dismissive either. There wasn’t much attention paid to needlesticks in human medicine until people started to get sick (and die) from them. You don’t know about an emerging disease until it’s emerged. Infection control is inherently reactionary. Actions are most often taken in response to a known problem, rather than a potential issue.

One of my mantras ‘don’t be a case report’. I can’t completely prevent that but by reducing the risk of a needlestick, I can reduce the risk of me being the ‘first reported case of ___ acquired by a needlestick from an animal.’

Unlike many infection control activities, needlestick injury risk reduction is straightforward and doesn’t take much real time or effort. It includes things like:

  • Never recap a needle
  • Never leave an uncapped needle on a surface
  • Never pass an uncapped needle to someone
  • Always dispose of needles immediately into a sharps container
  • Never leave needles in lab coats or other laundry (yes, this still happens and people get stuck….and pissed off)
  • Consider using safety engineered devices that has sharps injury protection mechanisms like retracting needles or sheathes that are pushed over the needle

I’ve done all of the ‘never’ list above, except maybe the laundry one. As a busy medicine resident, in particular, I was pretty cavalier and got stuck many times, usually because we were rushing with an emergency but also because I gave it little thought. There was never a culture of needlestick injury prevention or event reporting (even when a patient broke a bunch of my ribs).

Like a lot of things in infection control, the science is easy. Behaviour and culture change are the main issues.

Taking a few seconds of time and basic awareness is all that’s needed.

Image from Amoroso et al 2020, Clin Infect Dis 2020 

Rabies is a disease that’s met with an interesting mix of inherent fear and dismissiveness in most developed countries, where canine rabies has been eradicated. It’s also a disease that’s often poorly understood in areas where it causes large numbers of deaths. As an almost completely preventable disease (with proper post-exposure treatment), and one for which we have highly effective vaccines (for people and animals), barriers to accessing these critical prevention tools need to be assessed.

Like a lot of things in infectious diseases, the science is (relatively) easy.  Application of the science is another story.

As we recognize World Rabies Day, here’s a post from Dr. Philip Mshelbwala, a colleague and collaborator from Nigeria who is currently studying rabies at the University of Queensland.

Why we need to boost community knowledge in rabies endemic countries

Over 59, 000 people die due to rabies each year, the vast majority in Africa and Asia, where the domestic dog is the major culprit. The World Health Organization (WHO) and other partner organizations have targeted the year 2030 for elimination of dog-mediated rabies. In order to achieve this aim, people in endemic countries need to know how to recognise the disease and report it to appropriate authorities for effective action as well as discourage practices that may hamper its control. 

This is just one example of barriers that are present.

In June, a dog was presented to a private veterinary hospital in Umuahia, Abia State, Nigeria as a suspected case of rabies. The dog was bitten by a stray dog on the foreleg some weeks back. The dog had been vaccinated against typical canine diseases but not rabies.  It had a clearly identified risk factor for rabies and had clinical signs consistent with rabies… anorexia, drooling, loss of tongue tone… but the owner treated it initially with coconut water as a local cure for suspected poisoning.  As the dog deteriorated, veterinary care was sought and the veterinarian immediately suspected rabies. The owner was informed and the dog was taken home.

The veterinarian contacted the state epidemiologist and senior colleagues for guidance. However, by the time the owner was reached the next day, the dog had been slaughtered and eaten. Testing could not be performed but rabies was most likely.

This case highlights one of the many challenges of rabies control in developing countries.  The mere attack by a stray dog should have pointed his attention to rabies in an endemic area, leading to prompt isolation of the dog and investigation of the need for post-exposure treatment of human contacts. Too often, case reports like this are prompted after a human death, such as a bite to children in the household or someone caring for the sick dog. Fortunately, that was not the case here, but that was more related to luck rather than any measures taken to prevent rabies in the exposed household.

Various educational opportunities are highlighted by this case.

The owner of the dog went to the cost and effort of getting their dog vaccinated but failed to have it vaccinated against rabies. Most dog owners in Nigeria are aware of common canine diseases like parvoviral enteritis,  because it commonly affects dogs at their early stage of life, with a high mortality rate.  Unfortunately, with less knowledge of rabies (despite the ever-present threat in the area), rabies vaccination was not elected. Education of owners about the rabies, including the need for vaccination, remains an important need. An ability to access rabies vaccination is also needed, another issue in some areas because of availability or cost barriers. Education about dog bite avoidance and when to seek medical care is also needed. Parallel education of human and veterinary healthcare providers to ensure appropriate responses to rabies exposures or questions is also critical.

Many opportunities were missed in this case, including many aspects of disease prevention, diagnosis, human healthcare and education. Testing of the dog would have allowed for a definitive diagnosis, and if positive, would have prompted contact tracing and post-exposure vaccination (provided there was adequate access to supplies and healthcare… another issue in some developing regions). Diagnosis also helps increase awareness, potentially leading to different behaviours and more vaccination.  For Nigeria to eliminate rabies, the  general public need to be empowered  with good knowledge about rabies and how to prevent it. 

2030 is an optimistic date for elimination of dog-mediated rabies in people. Is it still realistic now that we’re well into 2020? Probably not. Does that mean we should give up? No. Whether it’s 2030, 2040 or some other date, elimination of canine rabies is an important goal and one that is achievable with the right support.

Here’s a quick update on some recent feline studies on SARS-CoV-2. Some come with the increasingly common disclaimer that they are pre-prints, meaning the studies haven’t yet undergone peer review by other scientists in the field.

Cats in Hong Kong (Barrs et al. Emerg Infect Dis 2020)

This study has undergone peer review, and provides a nice description of Hong Kong’s efforts early in the pandemic. They had the most comprehensive response to potential animal exposure, and this information is available as a result of their approach to quarantine and test pets of infected people early in the pandemic, when alternate housing was not available.

They tested 50 cats from households with COVID-19 patients, or where owners had close contact with an infected person. They detected SARS-CoV-2 by PCR in 6 (12%) of the cats. They sequenced the viral isolates from a person and a cat in one household, and they were (unsurprisingly) identical, supporting the conclusion that one infected the other (presumably human-to-cat).

Dogs and cats in France (Fritz et al. 2020)

This pre-print describes a study of dogs and cats from COVID-19-positive households in France. They used a battery of antibody tests to detect previous exposure to the virus (as compared to PCR testing, which aims to detect active infection by finding pieces of the actual virus). They ran 4 tests: a neutralizing assay and 3 tests looking for IgG against three different viral proteins.

  • If a positive is considered an animal that was positive on either the neutralization assay OR all 3 IgG tests, 8 of 34 (24%) cats and 2 of 13 (15%) dogs were positive.
  • If a positive is considered an animal that was positive on ANY one of the tests, the numbers jump to 59% in cats and 39% in dogs.
  • Only 1 of 16 cats and 0 of 22 dogs from non-COVID-19 households were positive using the first criterion (whether that means the one household had undetected COVID-19 in a person, that the cat was exposed outside the house, or the result was a false positive isn’t possible to discern). Using the second criterion there were 6 (15%) positive animals in this group. That’s high for a negative control group, but substantially less than from the COVID-19 households.

The seroprevalence is high, but consistent with what we have found so far with our serological studies of dogs and cats in Canada  (4/8 cats, 2/10 dogs), supporting fairly common human-to-pet transmission.

Another cat experimental study (Gaudreault et al. 2020)

Another pre-print, this one doesn’t add much to what we already know, but beefs up our overall knowledge. They took 6 cats (4-5 months old) and exposed them to the SARS-CoV-2 virus through the nose or mouth. They then added naive cats one day later to look for cat-to-cat transmission. All pretty standard.  Cats stayed clinically healthy but there was evidence of infection via detection of the virus in tissues and some signs of inflammation in the airways. Transmission to the other cats occurred within 2 days.

So, it’s similar to what we’ve already heard: cats can be infected, they don’t usually get noticeably sick, but they can infect other cats.

Cats: A Case Report (Hosie et al. 2020)

This is a pre-print case report of two cats with SARS-CoV-2 infection in the UK.

The first case was a 4-month-old kitten whose owner had COVID-19. A couple of weeks after the onset of the owner’s illness, the kitten was taken to a veterinarian with severe respiratory disease.  The kitten’s condition deteriorated and it was euthanized. There were signs of severe respiratory disease on radiographs, and necropsy results were consistent with severe viral pneumonia. SARS-CoV-2 was identified in the lung, and no other potential causes were identified.

They researchers then tested 387 swabs that were submitted to the University of Glasgow diagnostic lab for respiratory pathogen testing. One of these was positive for SARS-CoV-2. This was from a 6-year-old cat with mild respiratory and ocular disease. It was also positive for feline herpesvirus, a common cause of those signs in many cats. However, one of the cat’s owners had signs consistent with COVID-19 at the time the cat was sick. Most likely, SARS-CoV-2 infection was an incidental finding here.

Taken together, these reports are consistent with our current messaging:

  • Cats are susceptible to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
  • Most often, infections are likely subclinical (i.e. cats stay healthy).
  • Just like in people, some cats can get sick, including (rarely) fatal illness.
  • Cats can spread the virus cat-to-cat, so we have to consider cat-to-human transmission a possibility (however uncommon).
  • Most cats that get infected are directly infected by their owners.

I’ve written before about COVID-19 scent-detection dogs. I get lots of questions about them, and there are now several groups working in this area. There’s been a mix of information to date, ranging from encouraging to some pretty bad preliminary studies released on pre-print websites and other places. A dog’s nose is a wonderful thing (except when my dog sticks his in places I don’t want it to go), and dogs have been shown to be able to detect a wide range of different scents with great sensitivity.

The first question is: Will dogs be able to detect people with COVID-19?

If the answer is yes, then the bigger question is, will it be a practical way to detect people with COVID-19?

We may get more answers now that dogs are being used in a Finnish airport to sniff out COVID-19.  Ten dogs have been trained to detect people with COVID-19 based on smelling wipes collected from individuals. News reports include claims of close to 100% accuracy… I’d love to see good data on that, as I suspect it’s not 100% effective in the field. However, even if the dogs are moderately effective, they could be a useful tool when combined with other measures (e.g. rapid confirmatory testing of people that dogs flag as potentially infected).

My big questions at this point is, how effective is it really?

  • We need to consider both sensitivity (how good dogs are at detecting infected people) and specificity (how good they are at only detecting infected people).
  • For a screening test, we want a test that is highly sensitive, meaning it detects most infected people, even if it has some false positives (i.e. people who are mistakenly identified as positive but aren’t actually infected). That works if the false positive rate isn’t massive and if there is a convenient way to follow up to confirm who’s really positive. If we have a quick follow up test of another kind, the initial false positives are a bit of a hassle but not a big deal and easy enough to weed out, so we could tolerate some loss of specificity.
  • False negatives on the other hand (i.e. people who are infected but go undetected by the test) are a bigger concern.
  • So, knowing the sensitivity and specificity of these COVID019 detection dogs in a field situation (where there are lots of people of different types, with different stages of infection and with different smells) is key. Hopefully that’s being studied well.

Another question I have is, what’s the management plan for dogs that stick their noses in wipes from people with COVID-19?

  • Dogs have limited susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2, but limited and zero aren’t the same.
  • Will the dogs be screened in case they get infected in the process?
  • And (an oddball question perhaps) if a dog gets infected, does it lose the ability to detect infection in people? would the dog then smell the scent associated with the virus all the time?

There will be more to come, I assume.

The UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, Department of Epidemiology, is seeking volunteers to participate in their Veterinary and Zoonotic Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) and Other Coronaviruses Study.  Their goals are to assess potential exposures to SARS-CoV-2 and other zoonotic pathogens among veterinary and animal healthcare workers, as well as clinical symptoms, mental health, and attitudes and practices associated with the pandemic response. To be eligible to participate, you must work with or around animals, for example: in a veterinary clinic/hospital, with a mobile veterinary clinic, at an animal shelter, animal rehabilitation facility, animal control facility, zoo or aquarium, in an animal research lab, or animal husbandry operation.

Click here for more information and to enroll in the study.

An abstract in the upcoming ECCVID Conference (ESCMID conference on coronavirus disease) has some of our very preliminary Canadian dog/cat surveillance data (Beinzle, Marom and Weese, SARS-CoV-2 infection in pets). A press release went out about it from the conference that’s been picked up by various news agencies, resulting in some articles about the study that are a bit alarmist.  As is typical with zoonotic diseases, we’re trying to walk the fine line between raising awareness and preventing people from over-reacting.

Before I get to the details, I’ll give the overall synopsis of our results to date to provide some very important perspective first:

  • Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to pets probably isn’t uncommon. That’s not big news. We know cats, in particular, are susceptible to infection. With limited surveillance, a reasonable number of infected pets have been identified. I’ve been saying for a while that transmission to pets was likely occurring under the radar, but it’s not likely a big deal – it’s something to watch and figure out over time, but not to freak out about.
  • Pets in households with human COVID-19 cases are unlikely to be shedding the virus at any given time. While they can be infected, the window that they’ll shed the virus is likely pretty short. That’s why we have a hard time finding positive animals through PCR testing (looking for the virus) vs antibodies (looking for evidence of previous infection).
  • Relax. The messages are the same: treat pets like other members of the family when it comes to control measures for this virus. If the people in the household are isolating, the pets should too. If someone is staying away from people because they might have COVID-19, they should stay away from animals too.
  • The health impact of SARS-CoV-2 infection in pets is still unclear. I suspect cats are somewhat similar to people (with fewer infections). Most don’t get sick. Most that get sick get mild flu-like disease. A small percentage may get more seriously ill. It’s still a bit of a guess but I think it’s reasonable.

OK… now here are the details of our preliminary Canadian study results.

We looked at two things: testing for the virus itself, and testing for antibodies in pets.

  • We looked for viral RNA using PCR on swabs of the nose, mouth and rectum of pets in contact with people infected with COVID-19. We did this by going into the homes of these people and sampling the pets around the time of human illness. Of the 36 animals tested, 18 dogs, 16 cats and 1 ferret were negative. We got inconclusive results from one cat, and based on the timing of the owners’ and cat’s illness, we suspect it was sampled late in infection (so not shedding enough virus to give a definitive positive result).
  • We also tested pets for antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Antibodies indicate previous infection.  We’re still early in the process on this phase of the research, but antibodies were present in 4/8 (50%) cats and 2/10 (20%) dogs. Samples from animals from 2019 (pre-COVID) were all negative, including cats with feline coronavirus infection (so we know the antibody test does not cross-react). All of the seropositive cats were reported to have been sick around the time of the owners’ illness. Take that with a grain of salt because it’s retrospective, but it’s interesting.

The 50% and 20%  seropositive results are high, but maybe not too surprising, and I don’t really focus on the specific percentages because the sample size is small. The key is antibodies are not uncommon in these animals, which supports that cats seem to be fairly susceptible to infection. Our numbers are currently higher than the few other recent studies, but not out of line. A study from Wuhan, China showed 14.7% of cats sampled in early 2020 were seropositive. That study included testing of stray cats, not just cats from known positive households like we did. It’s possible that some were pet cats that had been released or were indoor-outdoor cats, but they weren’t all known to have been exposed. Another study reported antibodies in 3.4% of dogs and 3.9% of cats in Italy. This involved sampling of healthy pets in veterinary clinics, rather than targeting positive households. So, our study population was a lot higher risk, and therefore a higher prevalence of antibodies in our sample makes sense.

The relatively good state of COVID-19 in our area over the summer hurt the study (but I’m not complaining) since we didn’t have many human cases in the area with pets we could test. As we ramp up in the second wave, we’ll unfortunately be in a better position to get more samples. We’re also working on a few ways to get more blood samples from pets of people who had COVID-19 earlier in the year. We’ll hopefully have more robust results soon.

A group of us wrote a Letter to the Editor of Lancet in response to a recent One Health paper. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t published, but  we think it’s an important message, so here it is:

A Call to Action for a One Health approach in COVID-19 and Beyond

While we echo Amuasi and colleagues’ call for a One Health COVID-19 Research Coalition1, we urge the scientific community to genuinely embrace a cross-disciplinary approach. Oblivion to One Health principles has characterized the response to the evolving pandemic. Once human-to-human transmission emerged as the cause of the pandemic, broader One Health aspects were ignored. The initial assessment put forth by some high-profile agencies was antithetical to the concept of One Health2, focusing on “no evidence” of the potential for SARS-CoV-2 transmission to animals or of risk of further interspecies spread, despite a lack of investigation. While subsequent research forced a change in message, dismissing involvement of animals in zoonotic diseases, until such is proven, is detrimental on all fronts. Almost all recent infectious disease outbreaks have been of zoonotic origin, and a logical, proactive approach to identify and address all ramifications is essential. Additionally, human-induced environmental drivers of infectious disease emergence are fundamental triggers of zoonoses. Although environmental changes such as habitat destruction, urbanization and agricultural intensification were highlighted as ongoing factors driving zoonotic disease emergence, efforts to improve ecosystem health and resiliency continue to be absent from broader discussions in the current response and future pandemic prevention.3

It is essential that One Health concepts, not simply discussions, are integrated into political, environmental and social actions. A One Health approach built on strong cross-disciplinary collaborations must be the default approach to prevention and control of emerging diseases, rather than an afterthought that is reserved until there is definitive proof of need.


Scott Weese, Dorothee Bienzle, Katie M. Clow, Heather M. Murphy, and Kari E. Dunfield

Departments of Pathobiology (JSW, DB) and Population Medicine (KMC), Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada

School of Environmental Sciences (KED), Ontario Agricultural College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada

College of Public Health (HMM), Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, USA

  1. Amuasi JH, Walzer C, Heymann D, et al. Calling for a COVID-19 One Health Research Coalition. Lancet 2020; 395: 1543
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Covid 19 and Animals [Internet]. Atlanta, GA: Centres for Disease Control and Prevention; 2020 [updated 2020 April 30; cited 2020 May 17]. Available from:
  3. Allen T, Murray KA, Zambrana-Torellio C, et al. Global hotspots and correlates of emerging zoonotic diseases. Nat Commun 2017; 8: 1124.

A couple of months BC (before COVID-19), I was planning a live simulation exercise for our hospital. The goal was to see how well we could identify and handle a nasty, reportable zoonotic disease, and to look at our personal protective equipment training and needs (COVID-19 helped with that last one, at least).

Here’s the test scenario we were going to use:  A cat is presented with fever, lethargy and cough, with rapid progression to severe pneumonia. If travel history was queried (another test for the staff, as this step is commonly missed), the “owners” would say they just moved with the cat from Colorado. From there, some good questions would hopefully raise concerns about plague, although it’d be easy to miss initially as plague is a disease we don’t see around here, and most veterinarians have never seen a case. The primary goal of the exercise was to be to look at when and how we identified the concern, and our response to it. Those aspects are themselves educational, but the big-picture goal was to see how we can improve our ability to identify, respond and communicate around such a case.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it didn’t seem like a good time to do an exercise like this, given the changes and stressors in the clinic.  However, while unlikely, the scenario wasn’t unreasonable. Plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, is still present in some regions of North America and other parts of the world.  Pets can be infected and the can occasionally pass the infection on to their human contacts. Veterinarians are at particularly high-risk for this kind of transmission because of our close contact with infected animals during examination and treatment.

A recent case of plague in a cat in Colorado highlights the zoonotic risks. There’s not any detail in the report, beyond saying a person got plague from a cat, but cat-associated plague is well documented.

Plague is now rare (thank goodness), but it can still be found in certain wildlife. People can be exposed from contact with infected wildlife (or their fleas), or via contact with domestic animals that were exposed to infected wildlife (or their fleas). People living in or traveling to areas where plague is present need to be aware of the risk and take some basic precautions:

  • Avoid contact with wildlife (especially species like prairie dogs, squirrels and other rodents) and places where they live.
  • Keep pets away from wildlife and their burrows/nests. In particular, keep pets away from dead wildlife.
  • Keep pets indoors or under control when outdoors.
  • Keep pets on a good flea prevention program.

I frequently harp about the need to query travel history in pets, since a lot of animals move around and knowing an animal came from somewhere else can be a key part of making a diagnosis. Pet owners need to play a role in that too, by making sure they mention places their pet has visited, or if it came from another region. Also (another factor that is often overlooked),  travel doesn’t just mean long distances. From a disease standpoint, it simply means going to a place that is somewhat different microbiologically. The classic example is a dog that lives in the city but visits a cottage that may only be a few hours away by car.  Since we have some regional differences in certain diseases (e.g. blastomycosis) and vectors (e.g. ticks), you don’t always have to go far to be exposed to new risks.

A few basic questions, like “where did you get your pet” and “have you gone anywhere with your pet recently” are easy, free and can make a big difference.

The amount of money being spent developing a COVID-19 vaccine is astounding. (The amount being spent on ensuring people will actually get such a vaccine, not so much – but that’s a different story.)

Beyond vaccine hesitancy, one potentially major issue with vaccination is inequity. Rich countries have greater ability to produce and/or buy vaccine. We’ve already seen how nationalism can impact COVID-19 control, such as US efforts to restrict companies from selling critically important personal protective equipment abroad. That may play well to a certain political base, but it’s globally unethical.

The message that really needs to be pounded into some peoples’ heads is control of a pandemic requires control of the whole pandemic, everywhere. Controlling it in one country is great, but it’s only effective if you are willing and able to completely isolate your country from the rest of the world. That’s simply not practical in the modern era. So, if we really want to get this pandemic under control, we need to think and act globally.

Vaccine nationalism is a barrier to that. Countries buying up hoards of vaccine, cornering the market on vaccine production capacity, and not thinking about the global needs will cause problems. It’s obvious why some countries do it – we all want to take care of ourselves and our own. However, we need to think and act globally to protect locally.

I remember talking to a colleague in the medical field a few years ago. She was just back from working on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.  Someone asked why she’d go there, putting in substantial time and risk, when she has a lot of important infectious disease issues here to handle. Her response was  (and I’m probably paraphrasing poorly) “to me, the best way to prevent problems with Ebola in Canada is to help control it in Africa.” It’s not a direct analogy to the current situation with COVID-19, as we still need to work on local control efforts here too of course, but we need to remember that there’s a whole world outside our borders, and viruses don’t care about geopolitical boundries.

That’s my long winded introduction into the Joint CCGHR-CSIH statement and call to action: Defeating COVID-19 calls for global solidarity, not a vaccine power playThis topic is well outside of my traditional area, but it’s very important, and I’m one of a big and broad list of signatories on this document.

The statement is a call for Canada to:

(a) increase its COVAX contributions commensurate to its advance purchase agreements;

(b) lobby other countries entering into such agreements to do the same; and

(c) urge all WHO member states to join the COVAX initiative.

It’s short and worth a read.

We all know that backyard chickens are becoming increasingly popular – despite some of their associated infectious disease hazards, which we’ve discussed many times before.  The latest “pandemic pastime” takes the trend to a whole new level, with scores of people fostering chicks or ducklings as a family activity, aka something to keep the kids engaged at home while so many other activities are still on hold.  While such an activity can certainly be a valuable learning opportunity for all involved, we really don’t want kids learning first-hand about diarrhea and other nasty infections caused by bacteria like Salmonella and Campylobacter that are often carried by poultry.  While many (but not all) backyard chicken enthusiasts keep their chickens in (as the the name suggests) their backyard, which helps to reduce poop and other contamination in the house (please don’t mention chicken diapers to me here), many families that are fostering young poultry as part of this new trend live in cities like Toronto, where many may not even have a backyard (and where it is may not be legal to keep poultry even if you do have a backyard – check with your municipality).  So the baby birds are sharing the same living space as the people (uh-oh), including the kids (uh-oh!), and sometimes very young kids, or other high-risk individuals (really uh-oh!).

Baby birds that are fostered or adopted may or may not come with some “instructions,” or at least some tips on how to care for them and how to feed them, but it’s unclear how often they also come with appropriate warnings about the infectious disease risks associated with live poultry, and how to reduce these risks.  (Even when they do come with the warnings, it’s hard to know how often people actually pay any attention to them.) It’s really important to ensure families are looking out for the health and safety of the birds, as well as the health of the people living in the house (or those who may visit).

The Ontario government has recently released a factsheet “Keeping your family healthy with backyard poultry, including chicks and ducklings” to help provide those who have decided to try out this new trend with some additional guidance that they may not receive directly from other sources (the factsheet is also available in French).  None of the recommendations are rocket science, and we’ve certainly mentioned them all before at one time or another, but in the excitement of the arrival of some cute new fluffy feathery friends, it’s good to have all of these reminders in one easy-to-find place.  Just to name a few:

  • Wash your hands after handling birds, or items or surfaces they contact
  • Supervise children around birds (also see rule #1 above)
  • Don’t kiss or snuggle the birds (also see rule #2 above)
  • Don’t eat around the birds
  • Don’t let the birds into places where there are things that you eat (i.e. kitchen)
  • If anyone in your family gets sick, be sure to tell your doctor about the birds

As with anything, especially anything to do with animals, make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into before you sign up (and also be aware of what the fate of your feathery friend may ultimately be, depending on the program).