Cats Getting Dog Flu: No Joke


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It sounds like a cruel April Fools joke – but it’s no joke to the four cats that have tested positive for the dog flu (canine influenza virus) at at the Humane Society of Calumet Area in Highland, IN.

We’ve always known it was possible that this (cats getting the dog flu) might happen based on reports from South Korea,” says Dr. Sandra Newbury, director of Shelter Medicine at University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, Madison.

The particular strain of dog flu Newbury is referring, called H3N2, arrived last Spring in the Chicago area from South Korea, hitting at epidemic proportions in the region and ultimately spread around the country. Thousands of dogs were sickened in the Chicago area alone, and thousands more throughout the country.

Pet expert Steve Dale speaks with Dr. Sandra Newbury about dog flu in catsOf course, many of those sick dogs also lived with cats. Statistically about a quarter of dog homes share space with at least one feline. Still, until now, there’s been only one confirmed instance of a cat catching the dog flu.

At the Humane Society of Calumet Area, the four cats testing positive for H3N2 dog flu lived in a group of nine cats in a room away from direct contact with dogs. The cats were minding their own business, just waiting for forever homes to be adopted into.

The dogs, located elsewhere in the shelter, came down the flu. In fact, the shelter shut down dog adoptions because the dog flu became so pervasive. One dog at the facility died as a result.

But no one – not even Newbury, who has been studying the H32, could have predicted what came next.

Observant shelter staff noticed some of the nine cats were breaking with upper respiratory signs, some just a little different.

So the cats were tested with the dog flu.Guess what?

Seven cats became ill – and four of them tested positive for the dog flu. Two are, to date, healthy.

For the number of cats exposed to sick dogs, many thousands, it seems what happened at the Indiana shelter is an anomoly

For the number of cats exposed to sick dogs, many thousands, it seems what happened at the Indiana shelter is an anomaly

What’s interesting here is that, for starters, the dogs had no direct contact with the cats. Might a person who cared for the dogs delivered the virus to cats on shoes or a piece of equipment? “Absolutely,” Newbury says.

Having said that, clearly the dog flu hasn’t been easily transmittable to cats – even in a shelter environment. Limited for space Newbury notes that Anti Cruelty in Chicago kept dogs sick with the flu with cats (particularly before this strain of flu was discovered, as the previously known dog flu strain was known not to be transmissible to cats). Newbury frequently conducted surveillance testing on cats (cats commonly do have upper respiratory issues, particularly in a shelter environment) at Anti Cruelty, PAWS Chicago and Chicago Animal Care and Control, and there wasn’t (until now) a single instance of a cat with dog flu.

And that’s not to mention all the vet clinics around the country that similarly moved sick dogs – and sometimes very sick dogs – to where cats are, and similarly not a known case of a cat catching the dog flu.

Also as mentioned, all those thousands of owned cats in homes with sick dogs – and only one substantiated diagnosis of a cat getting ill from a dog.

“Of course, surveillance isn’t perfect, and pet owners might assume a sneezing cat is doing what many cats often do,” says Newbury. “But you’d think we’d catch many other cases before now.”

Certainly social dogs are FAR more prone to catching the dog flu than any cat, unless dogs are vaccinated

Certainly social dogs are FAR more prone to catching the dog flu than any cat, unless dogs are vaccinated

So, why did these cats get at the Indiana shelter get sick with the dog flu?

“I’m guessing and the answer, so it would be only be is only a guess,” she says. “There are multiple possibilities and we just don’t have the answer, yet.”

Flu virus can be shape shifters – jumping species. One example is the H3N8 dog flu (which cats can’t get), which converted from an equine virus into a canine virus. In fact, the exact place and time that happened is known, a race track in Florida in 2004.

If that happened in this shelter – it won’t likely get further. The cats sick with dog flu will apparently all survive, and are doing very well – as they didn’t getting as sick as at least some dogs with the H3N2 strain of flu at the shelter. Obviously, the exposed cats won’t be adopted until the virus is out of their system.

Newbury is fascinated about the event – she’s not concerned about the general population of cats. “I don’t know exactly what occurred (at the shelter), but I hope it’s an anomaly,” she says.

There’s no data about whether the vaccine for H3N2 is safe for cats, or would work.

However, it seems logical, the more dogs vaccinated – the fewer dogs will get the flu and therefore able to spread it to any animal. H3N2 has not ever been reported in humans, and obviously the number of people around the sick dogs adds well into the millions at this point.

If you are worried about the cat, you probably don't need to - but vaccinating the dog can alleviate further concern

If you are worried about the cat, you probably don’t need to – but vaccinating the dog can alleviate further concern

While Newbury will be paying closer attention to shelters with dogs that have the flu to check cats for the flu as well, she adds. “I want people to know what’s happening but I also don’t want people to worry unnecessarily about cats.”

However, the dog flu continues to be a problem for dogs in the Chicago area, and on and off in various other cities around the country.

As Newbury learns more, I will share here.

Newbury offers FAQ’s on the University website.

Some of your dog flu questions answered.