High rates of influenza amongst cats surprises researchers
Oregon State study finds cats able to contract varying strains of the influenza virus
Published: Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 16, 2012 03:10
As the onset of flu season approaches, most people are worried about catching the flu, not about giving it to their cats. But the recent research of Christiane Löhr suggests that it might be a good idea to watch if Snuffles gets the sniffles too.
“The first case of a cat that became ill, but did not die, was in Iowa,” said Löhr, an associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University.
The Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at OSU subsequently diagnosed the first fatal case of H1N1, popularly known as swine flu, in domestic cats.
A study titled “Pandemic and Seasonal Human Influenza Virus Infections in Domestic Cats: Prevalence, Association with Respiratory Disease, and Seasonality Patterns” published last year in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology, supplied additional evidence that domestic cats were indeed susceptible to contracting different strains of the influenza virus.
In the group studied, antibodies against the pandemic and seasonal H1N1 viruses were present 22.5 percent and 33 percent of the time, respectively, suggesting that rates of infection in domestic cats were higher than expected.
“I was surprised by how many cats were actually infected with the influenza virus,” Löhr said.
Additionally, the study established a link between infection with H1N1 and H3N2 and respiratory problems in cats.
There are a number of reasons these revelations are a cause for concern for Löhr.
“First of all, I’m a pet owner myself, so that’s a concern,” Löhr said. “Secondly, there’s increased disease pressure with the upcoming flu season. Thirdly, from a scientific standpoint, the influenza virus itself can undergo relatively massive changes rapidly. With the influenza virus, what most people are worried about is that we’ll have recombination that would give us something like the flu of 1918.”
Löhr describes the recombination of the influenza viruses as a “black box,” where something serious could happen, or nothing at all. Recombination occurs when two viruses share genetic material with one another, and the addition of another host for the virus, like domestic cats, opens the door for another possible place for influenza viruses to meet and mutate.
“From a public health standpoint, the more species infected, the more difficult it is to monitor the disease,” Löhr said.
Löhr hopes her research will yield a “better understanding of why this happened and what hasn’t been done.” Löhr believes these reported cases are “only the tip of the iceberg” and asserts that “systematic study is an important starting point for gaining a greater understanding of what’s going on.”
Löhr attributes the dearth of information to the difficulty in garnering funding for research with pet animals.
“It’s hard to get approval for experiments with dogs and cats, and research on diseases in pets is grossly underfunded. The government cares more about people and animals of economic importance. It’s a lot harder to get funding for research for animals that are really close to us,” Löhr said.
Symptoms of the flu in pets are similar to those people get, including lethargy and respiratory problems like coughing, and fever. If these symptoms are observed in pets, the pet owner should take the animal to the vet and point out the possible connection between the pet owner’s own flu symptoms and the those of the pet.
Löhr recommends taking “the same kind of precautions we take with seasonal flu around other people,” including hand washing and limiting exposure to other pets.
“Of course, get your flu shot,” Löhr said.
Löhr’s own paper, “Pathology and Viral Antigen Distribution of Lethal Pneumonia in Domestic Cats Due to Pandemic (H1N1) 2009 Influenza A Virus,” was published in Veterinary Pathology in 2010.
McKinley Smith, news reporter