Foxes killed by avian flu

Highly pathogenic avian influenza primarily affects wild birds and poultry, but mammals like red fox kits are also susceptible. Credit: Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Wildlife officials say highly pathogenic avian influenza has killed wild foxes in Michigan, Minnesota and Ontario—the first known cases of the virus in wild mammals in North America.

On Thursday, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources reported that three red fox (Vulpes vulpes) kits died from the virus, HPAI H5N1 and a fourth recovered but developed blindness. On Wednesday, Minnesota reported the virus killed a wild fox there. On May 2, two wild red fox kits in Ontario tested positive for the virus.

While these are the first known North American cases of the virus in mammals, H5N1 killed wild fox kits in the Netherlands in May 2021.

The Michigan foxes came from separate dens in three different counties and were collected between April 1 and April 14. A wildlife rehabilitator reported seeing the foxes circling, tremoring and seizing—neurological signs of the virus, the MDNR says.

The H5N1 virus has been affecting both wild birds and poultry throughout the U.S. and Canada. While it has the potential to be transmitted to wild mammals, health officials say cases like these will likely be isolated. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider the public health risk to be low, but people cautioned to avoid handling sick or dead wild birds.

Additionally, due to other potential diseases that wild animals may carry, such as rabies and  distemper, wildlife health officials discourage the public from coming in contact with any sick or neurologically affected animals. Members of the public should contact their state wildlife agency to report sick or dead wild animals.