Are Cats Giving Humans the Flu?
Flu season is upon us. And while most humans are getting (or should already have) a flu shot, our furry companions are not as lucky. A recent outbreak of flu among cats in a New York City shelter has drawn some attention lately, because it is closely related to a new bird flu that is spreading in other areas of the world.
Keep reading for more details on what these new infections could mean for humans and vets in the U.S.
Bird Flu in Cats
2016 has seen the spread of avian flu in a number of countries, including China, India, Japan, and South Korea. The H7N9 strain has led to these countries culling millions of birds over the last year in an effort to stop the outbreak. Transfer of this particular strain to humans is rare, but there have also been instances reported of the much more infectious H5N1 in India, which more easily transfers to other animals and to humans.
In the U.S., our poultry population has remained safe, but a more recent emergence of H7N2 has been suspected to have found its way from birds to another household creature: cats.
A recent outbreak in New York City’s Animal Care Shelter has indicated that H7N2, a strain of avian flu, has made its way into the local feline population. The shelter has an idea as to who “patient zero” in this particular outbreak, but the cat was not identified before it could infect other cats and a shelter worker.
Cat to Human Flu Transfer
NPR reports that a veterinarian at the shelter who was in contact with sick cats contracted the flu in the first recorded case of cat to human flu transfer. The veterinarian reported only mild symptoms and since has fully recovered. However, the idea that an avian flu could make its way from birds to cats to humans is certainly cause of concern. According to the ASPCA, nearly 40% of U.S. households have at least one cat. If a more infectious and dangerous strain of avian flu, such as the notorious H1N1 (also known as swine flu) were able to make the leap from pigs to cats and then into humans, many people would be at risk. Luckily, there is no evidence that this can or will happen.
See: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/12/20/506285387/a-rare-bird-flu-infects-cats-in-new-york-city-shelter and http://www.aspca.org/animal-homelessness/shelter-intake-and-surrender/pet-statistics
How Vets Should Handle Potential Cases
Most veterinarians in the U.S. will not encounter cats with the H7N2 virus, but if it is suspected, precautions such as those taken at the NYC shelter should be implemented. For instance, all cats that are suspected of being infected should be quarantined away from any other animals. Further, veterinary clients who have cats exhibiting flu-like symptoms should be advised not to allow the cat to lick them and to avoid close contact, particularly if they themselves have a compromised immune system.
For veterinary practices, it is also important to keep the right veterinary laboratory supplies on hand to ensure that you can conduct tests in a timely manner and determine if the flu is the culprit for sick cats you may encounter.