Swine Flu (H1N1 Influenza) in Our Pets?

With all of the recent concern about protecting ourselves and our children from the new H1N1 swine flu, is it possible that we need to protect our pets as well? Perhaps more importantly, can our pets serve as sources of infection to our families?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, there have been almost 25,000 confirmed positive H1N1 tests in people in the United States during the 2009-2010 flu season to date. In comparison, the first known case of H1N1 flu in a housecat was announced in early November by the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) news website.

From that announcement, ““The 13-year-old indoor cat in Iowa was brought to the Lloyd Veterinary Medical Center at Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where it tested positive for the H1N1 virus…. “Two of the three members of the family that owns the pet had suffered from influenza-like illness before the cat became ill,” said IDPH Public Health Veterinarian, Dr. Ann Garvey. “This is not completely unexpected, as other strains of influenza have been found in cats in the past.” Both the cat and its owners have recovered from their illnesses.””

The IDPH believes that the swine flu was probably spread from the owners to the cat, rather than vise-versa. Cats have been known to contract the avian flu strain after consuming carcasses of birds that died from the illness. It is therefore not a surprise to see other influenza infections in cats.

There have also been several news reports of pet ferrets contracting the swine flu, apparently from their owners, who were sick before the ferrets showed any signs of illness. According to Nebraska news reports, two of the ferrets died from the disease. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirms one ferret tested positive for 2009 pandemic H1N1 on October 5th in the state of Oregon after exposure to humans with influenza. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) confirmed one ferret death in Nebraska, October 29th, but says the ferret in Oregon cited by the USDA is recovering from the disease.

It is known by veterinarians and researchers that ferrets have very similar respiratory systems to humans; they have been used to study human influenza infections for decades. Therefore, it is not surprising to see H1N1 jump from humans to ferrets.

The Associated Press (AP) reported news of 4 cases of H1N1 in a commercial herd of pigs in Indiana. According to the report, it is the first time swine flu has been seen in pigs raised for consumption in the U.S. The USDA has confirmed 12 test-positive state-fair show pigs, as well as the 4 pigs in Indiana. The AP says that the 4 hogs raised for slaughter, as well as their human handlers have all recovered from the illness.

As for pot-bellied pigs kept as pets, it is assumed that these animals are susceptible to the swine flu like their larger cousins; however, no cases have been documented as of yet.

To date, there have been no confirmed cases of the swine flu in dogs.

In humans, cats, ferrets, and pigs, H1N1 is a respiratory disease. Symptoms typical in people would be similar to the symptoms seen in an infected pet. Coughing, sore throat, fever, aches and pains, lethargy, reduced appetite, and occasionally vomiting and diarrhea are all possibilities. The disease is typically mild, but people with pre-existing health problems may be especially vulnerable. This might be assumed for pets as well. For people in high-risk groups, H1N1 can be fatal. Quoted from their website, the CDC defines “people at high-risk for developing flu-related complications as”:

  • Children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2 years old
  • Adults 65 years of age and older
  • Pregnant women
  • People who have medical conditions including:
    • Asthma
    • Neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions [including disorders of the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerve, and muscle such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy (seizure disorders), stroke, intellectual disability (mental retardation), moderate to severe developmental delay, muscular dystrophy, or spinal cord injury].
    • Chronic lung disease (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD] and cystic fibrosis)
    • Heart disease (such as congenital heart disease, congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease)
    • Blood disorders (such as sickle cell disease)
    • Endocrine disorders (such as diabetes mellitus)
    • Kidney disorders
    • Liver disorders
    • Metabolic disorders (such as inherited metabolic disorders and mitochondrial disorders)
    • Weakened immune system due to disease or medication (such as people with HIV or AIDS, or cancer, or those on chronic steroids)

What does all of this mean for your family? Well, with the data available, it appears that all of the confirmed cases of H1N1 in house pets have been spread from humans to the animals. There is no documented evidence of a person contracting the illness from their pets. The CDC recommends stringent hygiene and decontamination measures to prevent the spread of flu between people, and the same would hold true to prevent the disease from being transmitted between people and their pets. Below are the CDC recommendations in general:

Get the flu vaccine. Currently, there is not a swine flu vaccine available for dogs, cats, or ferrets; people who receive the human flu vaccine indirectly protect their pets by reducing the chance of exposure to the disease.
Take everyday preventive actions. Cover your nose and mouth, and cough into your elbow if you must cough. Wash your hands often and after exposure to infected people and pets. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers – they work! Avoid close contact with sick people or pets, and stay home if you are sick. Avoid hand to face contact. Separate infected pets from healthy family members and other pets.
Take flu anti-viral drugs if your doctor recommends them. These drugs can reduce the severity and duration of the illness.

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