This can be filed under “concerning but not surprising,” but H5N1 avian influenza has been identified in a dog in Ontario

It’s concerning because any spillover into mammals raises concerns about continued adaptation of this virus to spread outside birds, and because spillover infections in mammals can be severe. 

It’s not surprising because when you have millions of infected birds internationally, it’s inevitable that domestic and wild mammals will be exposed. Even if transmission is rare, when there’s a lot of exposure, transmission becomes more likely to occur and to be detected.

The case at hand is a dog from Oshawa, Ontario that died several days after being found scavenging a dead goose. Both the dog and goose were tested for H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus, and both were positive. Sequencing of the virus at the National Centre for Foreign Animal Diseases was performed and the virus from both the dog and goose were the same, and were consistent with the H5N1 strain that’s circulating in wild birds and domestic poultry. Further testing is being performed to confirm the cause of death in the dog. Given what we know about spillover infections into related species like foxes, it’s certainly possible that avian flu could have contributed to the dog’s death.

What should people in Ontario (or anywhere else avian flu is circulating) do?

  • Relax. That’s the first thing. This is concerning but not a doomsday scenario. We know that spillover into various mammals is happening and it will continue to happen. Also, this was a pretty high-exposure scenario where a dog had a lot of direct contact with a bird that had died of avian flu. It’s a reminder of why we’ve been emphasizing the need to try to better understand this virus since the outbreak was first identified, and to try to prevent more spillover infections from wild birds.

The next step is to just take (or continue to use) some basic common sense measures to reduce the risk of exposure.

What can be done?

  • The big thing is keeping dogs (and other domestic animals) away from wild birds.  It’s a good general rule to keep dogs away from wildlife anyway (alive or dead). That’s particularly true when there’s avian flu activity in an area.

Can dogs be vaccinated against this flu virus?

  • No, at least not at this point. Canine flu vaccines target different flu strains (canine H3N2 and H3N8) and there’s not likely any relevant cross protection. 

What’s the risk to people from infected dogs?

  • It’s probably very low but this is an unknown. Spillover infections into other species are often “dead end,” where the infected individual can’t/doesn’t infect anyone else. However, there have been some wild mammal outbreaks where limited mammal-to-mammal transmission has been a concern. When litters of wild canids have been infected, it’s hard to say if they were all exposed to the same infected birds or whether there was mammal-to-mammal spread.
  • So, it’s a big unknown. With that, it’s reasonable to take precautions to reduce contact with potentially infected mammals. However, the risk is probably quite low.

Should sick dogs be tested?

  • Testing would be considered in situations where there’s a plausible concern about H5N1 flu, based on likely exposure and the signs of illness in the dog. Lots of dogs have respiratory disease from various viral and bacterial causes and there’s no use testing every coughing dog (especially since a mildly ill coughing dog isn’t going to be a classical presentation for this viral infection). Testing for H5N1 influenza can be done through veterinarians, typically by PCR testing of oro-pharyngeal (throat), nasal and/or rectal swabs. 

What about cats?

  • Basically, replace everything above with “cat” instead of “dog.” The risks and preventive measures are pretty similar. Keeping cats indoors (when possible) to reduce their exposure to wild birds, is the main measure. That will help protect both them and their human contacts.