The Bird Flu - Is it a Threat to my Cat?July 24, 2006
KNOXVILLE - We know that recently equine influenza virus has infected dogs, and causes mild to severe respiratory tract disease. It has also been documented that the H5N1 virus, the so-called “Bird Flu” has infected and killed domestic and non-domestic cats. In Thailand, the virus killed a number of exotic cats, including clouded leopard and tigers. In Asia, and in Germany and Austria, the virus has infected and killed domestic cats. These animals contracted the virus from contact with or eating (uncooked) infected birds. In these cases, the animals showed "flu-like" signs, including fever, lethargy, and labored breathing. However, these were rare events.
Dogs have also been shown to be susceptible to infection with the H5N1 virus, but do not become ill nor do they transmit the virus. This virus has been shown to cause severe disease in ferrets experimentally, but their risk of natural exposure is extremely low unless housed with infected birds.
Owners may be worried about their cats, AND themselves – could my cat give me the avian flu? There is no current evidence that domestic cats play any role in the transmission cycle. Studies have shown that infected cats do excrete the virus, including in feces, albeit at much lower levels than birds. And cat-to-cat transmission may occur. Thus, where outbreaks of H5N1 are occurring in poultry and wild birds, cats could be more than a dead end host for the virus.
It is not known, however, what the infectious dose is for cats, how long they excrete the virus, whether they can excrete the virus without developing clinical signs, and whether cats could transmit virus to birds, humans or other species. This will require further study. There is no evidence that cats can in turn infect humans.
The H5N1 avian influenza has not been identified in North America; however, it may be worthwhile to implement safeguards for our feline friends. If – and it is still IF – H5N1 reaches the USA, it will be important to follow these recommendations:
- Eliminate or minimize contact between cats and birds or their droppings.
- Eliminate or minimize contact with feral cats living outside the home.
- Keeping cats indoors is ideal.
- Never feed uncooked meat to your pet.
- Have any ill animal examined by a veterinarian.
Animal shelters and feline rescue groups may want to institute additional measures, such as avoiding housing of poultry, do not house ferrets with cats, eliminate contact of wildlife (in the case of rehabilitation centers) with domestic animals.
There are many good websites with valuable information. Some of these include:
UT College of Veterinary Medicine