A 16-pound orange cat in Ames, Iowa, did something last month that will now and forevermore have a lot of cat lovers taking care to sneeze into their sleeves.
The 13-year-old tabby came down with H1N1 swine flu, proving that humans ill with the flu virus should take pains not to spread it to cats as well as humans.
The case surprised human and animal health authorities, who hadn’t seen a human flu virus passed to a cat before, though passionate cat lovers were shaking their heads when it was reported last week.
“The guy talking on the television news acted so surprised by the story,” said Judy Coffey, who runs Catworld, a Berwyn business that sells carpeted “cat trees” for felines to climb on, “but I think knowledgeable cat owners are well aware that our cats catch things from owners all the time….
“If we come down with a cold, pretty soon we see our cats sneezing,” she said.Though that association could be a bit of a stretch, veterinary medical experts and zookeepers say there are a number of diseases that humans can share with the rest of the animal world, and the list seems to get a little longer every year.
The study of zoonotic diseases — diseases transmissible between people and animals — has become an important research area in recent decades with the appearance of deadly new emergent diseases like Ebola, HIV/AIDS and West Nile virus.
But finding a cat sick with H1N1 flu — as that disease spreads to pandemic proportions — surprised health experts.
“This cat is a new development in the H1N1 panic,” said Kimberly May, a veterinary doctor and assistant director of professional services at the American Veterinary Medical Association.
“In general, cats are not considered susceptible to human flu viruses, but this cat got H1N1 flu from his owners. There seems to be no doubt about that, and from our understanding, it seems to be the first time a cat caught flu from a human.”
But experts say there is no evidence as of now that cats or other pets can pass the flu virus onto humans.
The Iowa tabby is an indoor cat never allowed outside, said a report from the Illinois Department of Public Health. It had not been around any humans other than its owners, and in the last week of October, the owners came down with the flu, assumed to be H1N1.
On Oct. 27, the cat fell ill too. The owners called friends who are veterinary researchers at Iowa State University in Ames. The researchers brought in the cat to be studied, and it tested positive for H1N1. It has since recovered and is back home.
Cats now join a small list of other animals known to be susceptible to H1N1, including ferrets, domestic turkeys and pigs. Though sometimes called swine flu, the current strain does not come from swine.
No dogs are known to have caught H1N1, but that possibility can no longer be ruled out, said May.
“Cats and dogs and people all are prone to respiratory diseases,” she said. “Obviously if H1N1 went into a cat, it is not impossible that it could go into a dog,” though she cautioned that it is not likely that H1N1 will become very common in pets like cats and dogs.
“If a cat gets a runny nose, people should not jump to the conclusion that it is H1N1. It probably is not. Cats and dogs have their own little bugs running around, and if they get sick, almost all the time it is due to those bugs, not things passed on by humans,” she said.
In 2004, a new illness showed up in dogs, canine influenza, thought to be a virus that jumped from horses to dogs. Humans and other animals do not get it, but it spread so rapidly in the canine world that last May virologists introduced a vaccine to protect dogs.
At zoos, keepers maintain distance and barriers between humans and animals as much to stop germs from spreading between the two as to protect against any physical dangers.
“While the protection goes both ways, most of our biosecurity protocols are there to keep animals from catching bugs from humans, both from keepers and the public,” said Dominic Travis, a veterinary epidemiologist who is Lincoln Park Zoo’s vice president for conservation and science.
Primates especially are susceptible to human respiratory diseases like flu, so in flu season, keepers wash their hands every time they leave an animal’s station.
As for protecting pets from catching flu from infected humans, animal health authorities recommend humans take the same steps they would to protect family and friends. That includes sneezing into the sleeve of your crooked arm to avoid spreading the flu virus.
“You should wash your hands frequently, cover your coughs and sneezes and don’t let the cat or dog lick your face, which of course isn’t recommended at any time, though hard to avoid,” said May.
For cats, Coffey jokingly offers another possible protection. “I have a cat that likes to sit on a high perch and greet people coming in. Some just go nose-to-nose nuzzling him,” she said. “I have been thinking I should make him one of those little hospital masks you see doctors and nurses wearing around patients in hospitals.”