At the start of the swine flu outbreak, most humane organizations said there was no need to be concerned about family pets. Now they're rethinking that stand.
The swine flu virus, also known as H1N1, has been found in a small number of animals since April, including cats and ferrets. At this point it’s not clear whether the small number is because few animals have been tested or because few have the disease.
Two cats from different households in Colorado tested positive for H1N1, according to Colorado State University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. The felines are expected to recover, but their cases serve as a reminder to pet owners to seek veterinary attention for companion animals that appear to be ill.
“We expect that both cats will recover, but these cases serve as a reminder to pet owners to seek veterinary attention as soon as possible if their pet seems ill. This flu has also been identified in ferrets, exotic cats and birds in the United States, so any companion animal that appears to have the flu should get immediate attention,” said Dr. Kristy Pabilonia, a veterinarian and expert on H1N1 testing in animals at CSU.
The first pet cat to be diagnosed was a 13-year-old in Iowa that was having trouble breathing. Two members of the family had flu symptoms before their cat also showed signs of being infected. The cat was tested for H1N1 at Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and results for the virus were positive. The cat, and all family members, have since recovered.
In the last two months, other cats have tested positive in Iowa, Utah and Pennsylvania. All have recovered or are expected to recover, Pabilonia said. Since this strain of H1N1 is new, information about how it impacts animals is limited. To date, there are no reported cases of H1N1 in dogs in the United States.
People with H1N1 or any flu should be careful when in contact with their pets. Pabilonia recommends that they practice social distancing with pets just as they would with people. People who are ill should wash their hands before handling pets and, if possible, have someone who is well feed and care for pets. Just like people, pets are exposed to H1N1 through aerosols -- fluids released when someone sneezes, coughs or touches their face and then a surface. Pet owners should keep pets up to date on vaccinations for other diseases, make sure they are eating well, keep bowls and living spaces clean and take sick animals to the vet.
Symptoms in pets may include lethargy, decreased appetite, fever, runny nose and eyes, sneezing, coughing and changes in breathing patterns. Because there have been only a few cases, Pabilonia said vets have limited information about the severity of the disease in house pets.
There is no evidence to date that any human has been infected with influenza by a pet, or of infection being transmitted from one cat to another, from a dog to a cat, or vice versa.
Meanwhile, swine flu is waning in humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported December 4, 2009 that infections were widespread in 25 states, down from 48 in late October.
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