Approximately 500 cats have been quarantined because most have tested positive for having a bird flu. The cats are being quarantined at a temporary facility operated by the ASPCA in Long Island City (in Queens). While most the cats have recovered from the flu, or soon likely will, a few cats have succumbed from this very contagious flu.
While there are isolated instances of cats getting other types of bird flu, no bird flu has never hit cats so hard. So, what’s happening in New York, where clearly anything is possible?
“We don’t know why this virus is affecting so many cats,” says Dr. Sandra Newbury, clinical assistant professor and director of shelter medicine at University of Wisconsin College of Veterinary Medicine, Madison.
One possibility is that the H7N2 bird flu was somehow introduced in the New York animal control facility, and simply being stressed and more susceptible to illness in a shelter environment, cats got sick. Still, even if that is true – how is the bird flu so easily spread of cat to cat? Has the H7N2 bird flu virus mutated just enough to affect cats? Flu virus can mutate to jump species. Newberry’s response, “That’s a big question, and a very good question and researchers are looking into it.”
No one knows how the flu first appeared in the New York City shelter, but it may have introduced by a cat named Alfred. What remains unknown – assuming it was Alfred, did Alfred bring the flu with him or did he catch it once inside the shelter? Sadly, Alfred passed away.
Now, here’s the good news – and there’s lots of it:
For starters, there doesn’t appear to be any of this bird flu happening in New York among wild birds. There are no reports of birds falling from the sky or anywhere more than normal the number of dead birds found by residents. Health surveillance officials have also not found this type of bird flu among wild birds.
Also, the virus appears to be burning itself out within the large group of quarantined cats. At this point, it’s unlikely death numbers will increase much, if at all. Eventually Newberry says with the added press (which often serves to boost adoption numbers) – combined with New York City’s nice track record for fostering and adopting – the cats that once had the flu, and are recovering or have recovered, should likely be adopted.
In theory, it’s possible for people to get this flu, but the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and New York Department of Public Health indicate that risk is very low. So, while images show people wearing hazmat suits around the quarantined cats, the cats are not spreading nuclear radiation, or likely even the flu bug. Only one person became “slightly ill” and tested a weak positive as a result of working with the cats.
Newbury notes that private practicing veterinarians and ER clinics in and around New York City are watchful for cats with respiratory distress (which is common in cats), but have not diagnosed a single instance of confirmed bird flu in cats not associated with this outbreak. So, the problem appears isolated to the Animal Care Center of New York.
In Chicago, the newest canine influenza virus (H3N2) appeared in owned animals, and eventually settled into various animal shelters as well. This is the other way around in that the flu first occurred in a shelter, but the virus has not been identified outside shelters or outside New York City, and hopefully won’t.
At first some thought these sick cats in New York animal control were coming down with the dog flu, but that turns out not to be the case. One concern is that flu viruses do indeed mutate on occasion.
For example, the H3N8 equine influenza (horse flu) virus has been known to exist in horses for more than 40 years. In 2004, cases of an unknown respiratory illness in dogs (initially greyhounds) were reported in Florida. An investigation showed that this respiratory illness in dogs was caused by the equine influenza A H3N8 virus. Scientists believe this virus jumped species (from horses to dogs) and has adapted to cause illness in dogs and definitely has since spread among dogs. This is now considered a dog-specific H3N8 virus. In September 2005, this virus was identified by experts as a “newly emerging pathogen in the dog population” in the United States.
This undertaking to protect cats and contain and understand this avian flu sickening cats has been a combined effort of many partners including ASPCA, Animal Care Centers of New York City, Maddie’s Fund, New York City Department of Health and the University of Wisconsin Shelter Medicine Program and University of Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.