Fear of Pets Spreading Bird Flu Unfounded


ImageSteve spoke with leading experts on the potential avian flu threat to pets who might get sick, and the potential of it spreading to people. In Europe, some cat owners panicked when the bird flu was discovered in a pet cat.

    It’s been known for some time that felines are potentially susceptible to the avian flu. What wasn’t known was the public and political response once the inevitable happened.

    At the end of February at least one cat in Germany was confirmed to have died as a result of the avian flu. Several additional cats in Germany and Austria were also suspected to have perished as a result of the bird flu, but confirmation on the cause of their death and exactly how many cats died remain unclear.

    The impact in Europe was chilling. Dr. Susan Little, a feline specialty veterinarian, happened to be in England and France lecturing on feline reproduction and infectious diseases shortly after these deaths.

    “There was public concern, and, in places, hysteria,” Little says, following her return home to Quebec, Canada. She confirmed accounts of people in Germany and Austria abandoning their cats at shelters. In fact, people were relinquishing cats throughout Europe. “I can’t say it was a majority of cat owners, but it certainly was happening,” she says.

    Some local politicians in Germany placed restrictions on allowing cats outdoors (where they could potentially ingest infected birds). Officials in Austria and Germany suggested people “not be close” with their cats, and some warned people against sharing their beds with their cats.

    “Given what the public was told by the politicians, people were scared,” says Little. “They thought, ‘My cat could give me a disease I can die from.”

    It’s true people may be susceptible to avian influenza, specifically the H5N1 strain. The World Health Organization (WHO) had received reports of 175 total human cases of H5N1 avian influenza, with 96 deaths.

    However, according to the WHO and also the Centers for Disease Control, there is not one single documented instance of a cat – or any domestic animal – giving the avian flu to humans, according to Dr. Arnold Monto, epidemiologist and professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. “Certainly, we do continue to worry about people getting the avian flu,” he says.

    “It’s important to understand how specific these viruses are,” explains Dr. William Schaffner, epidemiologist and a specialist in infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, Nashville. “It’s like a lock and key. The virus acts like a key, perfectly fitting into the lock that is the respiratory tract and bronchial tubes of birds. In other animals, the key needs to really be jiggled at the lock to make it work, if it works at all.”

    There’s so much about the avian flu that is unknown, and downright confusing. For example, there were reports that pigs in Asia kept near poultry might also become infected by the bird flu since the virus was present in their nostrils. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization just released a report saying this fact doesn’t necessarily mean that swine become carriers of the flu or that they are infected. Finding virus in blood samples would be a more conclusive sign of infection, and so far, that has not occurred.

    At this point, Dr. James Richards, director of the Feline Heath Center at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine – Ithaca, NY says he’s not worried about the bird flu spreading wildly among cats. “I realize there’s an awful lot we don’t understand (about the avian flu), but look at all the millions of birds who have died. You’d figure if kitty cats were that susceptible, more would be affected. Although, this flu can be spread from cat to cat, there hasn’t been a single outbreak among cats.”

       When asked what the danger level is for companion animals in America or Canada, Schaffner – who is chair of the Department of Preventative Medicine and Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University – says, “At the moment – not existent. The bird flu isn’t here. Although, realistically, it’s inevitable, and just a matter of time. But let’s stop and put some perspective on what we do know. When all else fails, I go to the data. In 1957 and 1968 there were world-wide  bird flu pandemics, and domestic animals were not affected in any significant way.”

    Of course, the major concern is the potential of a world-wide human pandemic of the avian flu. “However, that can’t happen unless the virus mutates,” says Monto. “Well, that’s up to the virus as to whether the mutation to spread among humans occurs or not.”

    Meanwhile, there’s potential for the same sort of mutation to occur in any kind of animal – so theoretically, the bird flu virus could mutate to more easily impact felines, spreading readily from cat to cat. “Listen, anything is possible – but there’s no indication this will happen,” says Schaffner. “I’m worried about taking care of any sick cats just because I don’t want cats to be sick. I have no reason at this time to be worried for public health reasons.”

    Even when the bird flu arrives to this part of the world, Richards says, “If you are concerned, never offer uncooked poultry to your cat – which is a good idea anyway. And keep your cat indoors.” Arguably, even when the bird flu appears – it seems more likely that an outdoor cat may be hit by a car or catch another infectious disease from another cat than get the avian flu.

    Concern isn’t for felines alone. Hunting dogs retrieving waterfowl in their mouths (ducks, for example may be infected and spread the disease without getting sick). Since the bird flu is spread through their feces, and most dogs don’t have discriminating taste buds and may lick at feces – this could be a concern.  However, it remains unclear whether or not canines can get the bird flu, or under what circumstances. There are a number of reports of stray dogs dying of the bird flu, but only one instance (a stray dog in Azerbaijan) appears to be substantiated.

    As for pet birds, Monto says, “If they (pet birds) enjoy being outdoors, let them continue to enjoy themselves. As long as they’re contained, they won’t have interaction with migrating birds, waterfowl or poultry, right? So, there is no danger for them.”

    As for overall concern about pets, Richards concludes, “I’m glad people are paying attention. My hope is that we can learn by what was apparently an over-reaction by our some of our friends in Europe.”  

Schaffner agrees, “After all, we are only human, which means we sometimes respond emotionally. But those decisions (by public officials concerning pets and the avian flu) need to be based on what we know – not what we do not know.”