Visiting Veterinarian : Sick as a dog: Swine flu in animals
It was only a matter of time. Last week a 13-year-old cat in Iowa had a confirmed case of swine flu. Now before you panic and kick kitty out of the house, let's take a calm, scientific look at the facts.
First isolated in 1930, true swine flu is a respiratory disease of pigs caused by Type A influenza. Swine flu makes piggies sick but usually doesn't kill them. The virus we've all been talking about this year is actually a different virus, primarily affecting people, not porkers. To be scientifically accurate, let's use its official name - the 2009 H1N1 virus. But everyone calls it swine flu, you protest. It must have something to do with pigs, right? Well, sorta.
Initial laboratory tests indicated that many of the genes in 2009 H1N1 were similar to the genes in normal swine flu, but further research at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has now determined that 2009 H1N1 is a "quadruple reassortant virus." That's a mouthful. All it means is that this virus contains genes from four different strains of influenza. These include genes from North America swine flu, North American bird flu, human influenza, and swine flu from Asia and Europe.
Okay, I see you panicking again. Bird flu? Wasn't that the last big scare? Yes, but that wasn't North American bird flu. That was an avian influenza strain with the catchy technical name of H5N1.
In general, your typical influenza virus likes to be species-specific, sticking with one kind of critter. Dogs get canine influenza. Pigs get swine flu. Birds get avian influenza. But viruses are always mutating, changing, adapting. Some strains of influenza are more deadly than others and once in a while an animal strain makes the leap to infecting humans. That's what happened with H5N1 bird flu, a particularly nasty bug.
Luckily for us, H5N1 has not made it to the United States. At least not yet. Instead this year we get 2009 H1N1, which appears to have originated in Mexico and has been spreading rapidly. Although several herds of pigs have been confirmed infected, there have only been a few instances of pig-to-person transmission. The overwhelming majority of people with 2009 H1N1 caught it from another human being.
Besides pigs and people, 2009 H1N1 has been identified in turkeys, a handful of pet ferrets, and one lone cat. I don't know where the turkeys got it, but the cat and the ferrets, like the cat, caught the flu from their owners. Ferrets are very susceptible to influenza viruses in general, so it is not surprising, with their tendency to stick curious little noses into everything, that they got infected. So far, every single case of 2009 H1N1 flu in a house pet has been transmitted from human to animal. In other words, your pets are far more likely to catch it from you than vice versa.
What are the symptoms of 2009 H1N1 in pets? We only have limited cases to go by, but basically they look like they have the flu. You know. Coughing, sneezing, runny eyes, runny nose. They may be lethargic, have a fever, not want to eat. You know - The flu. But if Bacon the Burmese starts sneezing, he probably doesn't have the flu. He probably has one of the common feline upper respiratory viruses. Can we test him for swine flu? Theoretically yes, but we probably won't unless people in the household are also sick. How should we treat him? The one cat with a confirmed case of 2009 H1N1 recovered uneventfully with basic supportive care.
The same is true for most people. If Bacon is sick, make sure he stays well hydrated and encourage him to eat. If we suspect secondary bacterial infection, we might prescribe antibiotics, but other than that, we depend on his body's immune system to do its thing and fight off the virus. Just like in people, animals in high-risk categories are likely to be at greater risk. This might include the very young, the very old, or those with comprised immune systems such as chemotherapy patients, individuals infected with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), or Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV). Should he take antiviral drugs? Nope. Most people with the flu don't need antiviral and the same holds true for pets.
What about Porkchop, the Pekinese? Respiratory infection in the dog is most often "kennel cough", a common, relatively benign, self-limiting disease. There is also a strain of canine influenza, the H3N8 virus that affects only dogs. There have been no confirmed cases of 2009 H1N1 in pooches.
Can pets pass the virus to other family members or pets? We just don't know. To date, there is no evidence of this happening. On the other hand, you can infect your pets, although this seems to be a rare event. To play it safe, if you have the flu and Bacon and Porkchop usually sleep on your bed, banish them from the boudoir until you are better. Refrain from nuzzling your pet ferrets with your runny nose. Wash your hands before patting the pets or preparing their food.
What about your parakeet, your Amazon Grey parrot, your papaya-cheeked crested macaw? (Okay, I made that one up.) The 2009 H1N1 virus is known to infect poultry, but we have no information about the susceptibility of other birds. Why take chances? Current human recommendations are for people to avoid other people for at least 24 hours after fever has resolved. That's a good guideline for your pets as well.
If you are sick, steer clear of other living beings, human or otherwise. Wash your hands. If your pet is sick, limit contact. Keep him away from people and other animals until his symptoms resolve. Consult your veterinarian. Use common hygiene and common sense.