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Pets are at Risk for Flu, Too

influenza, flu, flu shot, pet health

Perhaps Fido and Fluffy should get in line for a flu shot. Researchers know that we can give our pets the flu, putting them at risk to spread it to other animals, and maybe even other people.

Researchers have known for some time that dogs and cats could contract the influenza virus. Last year, for example, there were outbreaks of H3N8 flu in 38 states, including the New York metropolitan area and near San Antonio, Texas. There has been a study of cats in Ohio that found 30% infected with seasonal flu (the kind that affects humans) and 20% who had been infected with H1N1, the strain that caused the 2009 pandemic.

Christiane Loehr, an associate professor at Oregon State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and colleagues are conducting a broader study of animals as it appears that flu infections in our pets may be much more common than previously thought. The major concern is that when a flu virus hops across species, it has the potential to undergo changes to its genetic code that could make it more virulent and dangerous to people.

"All viruses can mutate, but the influenza virus raises special concern," because it can change large segments of its DNA fairly easily, Loehr said. "In terms of hosts and mutations, who's to say that the cat couldn’t be the new pig? We'd just like to know more about this."

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So far, the researchers have confirmed 13 cases in which a pet cat or dog caught the pandemic H1N1 flu strain from a person, usually from their owner who had been sick with the virus. The first known case was recorded in Oregon in October 2009 when a cat who belonged to a person hospitalized with the flu died of pneumonia caused by the H1N1 virus strain. The feline was an indoor cat with no known exposure to any other sick people or animals.

Whether the sick pets can then transmit the virus back to humans, a concept called “reverse zoonosis,” is not yet known.

Animals infected with the flu develop symptoms similar to those in people, including breathing problems, a runny nose or eyes, and fatigue. They may also lose their appetite. If an animal is displaying symptoms of illness, take them to a veterinarian as soon as possible for testing and treatment.

While there is a vaccine that protects dogs from canine influenza (H3N8), there really isn’t a shot yet that they would receive to protect them from human flu viruses. To protect our furry friends (and of course ourselves), pet owners should get seasonal flu shots to reduce the chances of catching influenza and spreading it to others – both people and pets. Should pet owners become ill, they should take the same precautions they would take with other humans and minimize contact.

Oregon State University, “Onset of flu season raises concerns about human-to-pet transmission”. Accessed from ScienceDaily, October 22, 2012.
ABC News, “Does Your Dog Need a Flu Shot”, published November 2011.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Key Facts about Canine Influenza