Michigan fox kit deaths linked to avian influenza, officials say

Detroit News staff and wire reports

Three fox kits have died from highly pathogenic avian influenza in three Metro Detroit counties, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources said Thursday.

The fox kits collected between April 1 and April 14 came from three dens in Lapeer, Macomb and St. Clair counties, and were the state’s first such confirmation of the HPAI virus in wild mammals, the department said in a statement.

“HPAI H5N1 viruses may occasionally transmit from birds to mammals, as occurred in these cases, and there may be additional detections in other mammals during this outbreak, but they likely will be isolated cases,” said Megan Moriarty, the state wildlife veterinarian with the DNR. “At this point, it is unclear how the fox kits became infected, but it’s possible that they were exposed by consuming infected birds, such as waterfowl.”

A healthy red fox kit in a grassy Michigan forest.

"The DNR had received a report from a wildlife rehabilitator in southeastern Michigan about the fox kits exhibiting neurologic signs of HPAI before death," according to the release. "The kits were observed circling, tremoring and seizing. Two of the three died within hours of intake, while one appeared to respond to supportive therapy but then died in care."

Highly pathogenic avian influenza is a virus known to affect birds throughout North America, with detections in backyard flocks and commercial poultry facilities in 34 states and detections in wild birds in 35 states, officials said.

The latest outbreak has led to the culling of about 37 million chickens and turkeys in U.S. farms since February, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has confirmed more than 950 cases in wild birds.

It has spread through Michigan's backyard chicken flocks and wild birds. Since the first case was identified in Kalamazoo County in late February, avian influenza cases have been identified in domesticated birds and backyard flocks in Macomb, Menominee, Livingston, Washtenaw, Saginaw, Wexford, Branch and Oakland counties. 

The virus also has appeared in wild Canada geese and tundra swans from St. Clair County, snowy owls in Macomb County and a mute swan in Monroe County.

In Michigan, HPAI has been confirmed in 69 wild birds, the DNR said Thursday.

The situation has led Michigan agricultural officials to stop allowing poultry and waterfowl displays this year.

Avian influenza viruses usually do not infect people, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it is possible for humans to catch the virus from birds. Infected birds can shed the virus through their saliva, mucous and feces. Humans can get infected if the virus gets into their eyes, nose or mouth, or if it is inhaled.

Anyone who notices unusual or unexplained deaths among wild birds or sick, dead or neurologically abnormal foxes is asked to call the DNR Wildlife Disease Laboratory at (517) 336-5030 or a local DNR field office.