Saskatchewan

Presumptive cases of avian flu in skunks, foxes found in Sask.

A wildlife pathologist in Saskatoon says his lab is testing several skunks and fox kits showing neurological signs that could be caused by avian flu.

Wildlife pathologist says first case came in three weeks ago

Wildlife pathologist Trent Bollinger says the cases are primarily in skunks and the occasional red fox. (Submitted by Brittany Crossman)

Presumptive cases of avian flu are showing up in some species of mammals in Saskatchewan.

Trent Bollinger is a wildlife pathologist at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon. 

He told CBC News the first presumptive case of avian flu in a "major carnivore" came into the lab about three weeks ago. 

As of the last week, six to ten more have been tested.

"These are primarily skunks, with the occasional red fox, that have neurological signs which could be attributed to (high pathogenic) avian influenza virus," he said. 


Bollinger noted there are other viral diseases — such as distemper and rabies — that cause similar symptoms in these species.

However, recent molecular diagnostic tests point to avian flu as the most likely cause in at least three of the cases.

"We have several others that that we've done autopsies on and are investigating further. And that could cause the numbers to go up," Bollinger said. 

The transmission to mammals is not a surprise to Bollinger, who said cases have been showing up in the United States. 

"But we're seeing a fair number, which is maybe a bit unusual. So we'll see as time goes on," he said. 

Mortality to continue through summer

The pathologist says he expects more waterfowl, which are at high risk of viral transmission, will succumb to the avian flu through the summer.

He noted a "peak of activity", referring to the number of birds dying from the virus, during the spring migration through the prairies. 

While he expects those numbers to decline through the next few months, there's another vulnerable group: baby birds. 

"We're going to have new cohorts of ducklings and young juveniles that that could be exposed as well," he said. 

"So we may see, again, an uptick in mortalities that the public is observing."

Bollinger said bird species most affected by the virus appear to be "relatively abundant", and that mortality rates are not significantly impacting those populations at this time.

He noted the bigger concern is spread into poultry flocks, which have to be depopulated en masse and have economic implications. 

Bollinger said transmission to people and domestic pets, such as dogs and cats, doesn't seem to be happening.

What to watch for

Bollinger said people who spot an animal "acting abnormally", should avoid touching the animal, and contact a conservation officer.

However, if the animal subsequently dies and there's concern it could be avian flu, people can pick up the animal with latex gloves or a plastic bag to get it to a diagnostic lab.

"Bring it into the vet college here. We will do an autopsy on it, determine cause of death and then report back those findings," he said.

He added that the lab has not seen the disease in domestic pets, such as dogs and cats, and there's no concern about transmission there at the moment. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Daniella Ponticelli is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan. She has worked in print, broadcast and digital journalism in Manitoba and Saskatchewan since 2012. Get in touch with Daniella at daniella.ponticelli@cbc.ca or on Twitter @dponticelliTV.

With files from CBC's Fiona Odlum.

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