Avian Flu And Our Pets

Many Americans have watched the news stories showing chickens and other birds affected with avian flu with a small measure of concern.   Recent events, including the death of a cat in Germany, have raised that concern to a level of dread.  Is your pet, and potentially your family, at risk?

Although more than 200 million domestic birds across the world have lost their lives due to the avian flu, many people are just now noticing this disease.   The recent death of a cat may be the reason for the increased concern on the part of pet owners and Americans in general.

Earlier this year, a cat on a German island was found dead and was confirmed to have died from the avian virus, H5N1, the same virus that has been plaguing countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia for years.   The appearance of this virus in a mammal not known for harboring flu viruses is being viewed with a great deal of concern.   Cats have been experimentally infected with previous flu virus strains, but have always remained healthy.

The first signs that this virus may be different can be seen in a scientific article detailing the deaths of several snow tigers and snow leopards in an Asian zoo.  These exotic cats had been fed chickens infected with the H5N1 virus obtained from a local slaughterhouse.  Further reports began to arrive describing the deaths of house cats in Thailand.  Again, these cats had access to carcasses of infected chickens.  This same report was able to show that the cats were spreading the virus to other cats, causing them to become infected.  It is believed that the virus is spread in saliva, feces and urine.  The appearance of the virus in the German cat prompted many European families to abandon their cats at local shelters and German officials have begun enforcing a “cat curfew”, requiring cat owners to keep their pets indoors.

According to an article written by Dr. James Richards of the Cornell Feline Health Center, the risk to pet cats in the United States is considered to be very low.   The German cat was known to have consumed an infected wild bird and new feline cases in Austria and Poland were found in shelter cats who may have eaten birds infected with the virus.   The cats in Austria were also housed next to a chicken infected with H5N1.

Knowing that more than 184 people have been infected with the avian flu and that 103 of those people have died, is certainly scary to many people.  Hearing that a household companion may be bringing the disease into our homes is terrifying.  Experts are urging caution and restraint.  Dr. Richards, although acknowledging that German quarantines and “cat curfews” are sensible steps, quickly points out that there is no current evidence that our cats can spread the flu virus to us.   Cats who are fed commercial foods and are not allowed to roam are at minimal risk for contracting the virus.   The preparation of most commercial pet foods cooks the meat at a temperature in excess of 70 degrees Celsius (around 160 degrees Fahrenheit) which will effectively destroy the virus.

Additionally, the United States Department of Agriculture and state Fish and Wildlife Departments will begin testing tens of thousands of birds next month.   This increased vigilance will start in Alaska and some of the Pacific islands in an effort to obtain early warning of the virus’ appearance in the Western Hemisphere.  Experts in the Fish and Wildlife Service expect wild birds migrating on the Asian flyway to arrive in Alaska sometime during April or May.  Other experts think that the illegal bird trade or smuggling of wild birds will be the more likely method of entry.

Scientists and veterinarians, although concerned, are still recommending common sense.   The World Health Organization is attempting to fund more studies to see just how well the virus is adapting to mammals and US veterinarians and public health officials have safeguards in place to help minimize an outbreak, should it ever occur.  An article in the upcoming issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association will describe efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Purdue University to create an effective avian flu vaccine.

An important fact to remember is that there has been no documented transmission of the virus from cats to humans at this point in time.  Washing your hands after handling cats or cleaning litter boxes are good practical tips for pet owners.  Dr. Nicole Baumgarth, associate professor of immunology at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine reminds pet owners that the avian flu may show up as a gastrointestinal illness, not necessarily a respiratory disease.

All of the human deaths have been directly correlated with exposure to infected chickens or other poultry.   Knowing that, Dr. Baumgarth reminds everyone to keep a measure of reality in mind.   Her advice to cat owners, practice good flea and tick control, have your cat seen by the veterinarian at least once per year and “get rid of the chickens in the backyard if you are really worried.” In addition, routine visits to the veterinarian may identify other, more common, parasites that can affect our health as well.

For more up-to-date information on how the bird flu is affecting our feline companions, visit www.MyVNN.com.