Source: USS Today (Extract)
Posted: June 22, 2024

The ongoing bird flu outbreak, which has rapidly spread to four humans in the U.S., has now affected a wide range of species, including mammals in at least 31 states.

Among the infected are cows in 12 states, as well as foxes, mice, striped skunks, mountain lions, harbor seals, and alpacas.

Since March 1, at least 21 domestic cats in nine states have tested positive for the virus, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Infected cats include feral, barn cats, and household pets.

While there is a possibility of humans becoming ill from their infected cats, the CDC states that this risk is low. The H5N1 virus could potentially spread through cats’ saliva, feces, or other bodily fluids. All individuals who contracted the virus were exposed on farms, fully recovered, and efforts are underway to minimize further transmission.

Here’s what to know.

Can cats get bird flu?

Yes, cats can indeed contract bird flu if they come into contact with infected birds.

Typically, bird flu is known to primarily transmit between wild birds and domestic poultry. However, a recent occurrence of bird flu in dairy cows is a novel development for this species.

According to researchers at Cornell University, dairy cows in Texas were likely infected through water and food sources contaminated by migrating wild birds. Subsequently, the virus probably spread among cows housed closely together.

Dr. Elisha Frye, an assistant professor of practice at Cornell’s Department of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences, was summoned to an impacted dairy farm in March to probe into the deaths of cows, birds, and cats on the premises. Using milk samples, manure, and nasal swabs, Frye confirmed the cows’ illness.

Additionally, testing was conducted on deceased birds discovered on the farm, along with one of the three cats found dead at the facilities simultaneously. All tests yielded indications of bird flu presence.

“It was around the same timeframe as when we detected it in the cattle samples, which helped connect the dots,” Frye explained to USA TODAY. “Finding the same pathogen in the birds, the cat, and the milk from the cows all made sense as the primary cause of illness at that time.”

Have cats been affected by bird flu in the past?

The CDC has documented occasional outbreaks of bird flu among mammals in the past, affecting wildlife such as foxes and bears, as well as pets like dogs and cats. Authorities attribute these cases to animals consuming infected birds and poultry.

In 2004, there was an outbreak among domestic animals, including cats and dogs, reported in Thailand. Another outbreak affecting pets occurred in Germany and North America in 2006. The CDC states that humans contracting the virus from their pets is very rare and unlikely but has occurred due to prolonged, unprotected exposure.

In 2016, a veterinarian in New York City contracted bird flu after repeated exposure to sick cats without protective gear. The veterinarian experienced mild flu symptoms.

Signs your pet may be sick

The risk of your cat contracting bird flu is low but possible. It could occur if your cat spends a lot of time outdoors and interacts closely with infected birds, consumes them, or frequents contaminated environments.

If you suspect that people or animals in your household have been in contact with a sick or deceased bird, it’s important to monitor them closely for these symptoms:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Difficulty breathing/shortness of breath
  • Conjunctivitis (eye tearing, redness, irritation, or discharge from eye)
  • Headaches
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Diarrhea

How to prevent the spread of bird flu

Avoiding exposure in the first place is the most effective way to stop the spread, says the CDC.

  • Avoid direct contact with wild birds and observe wild birds only from a distance, whenever possible.
  • Avoid contact between pets (e.g., pet birds, dogs and cats) with wild birds
  • Don’t touch sick or dead birds, their feces or litter or any surface or water source (e.g., ponds, waterers, buckets, pans, troughs) that might be contaminated with their saliva, feces, or any other bodily fluids without wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). 
  • Avoid touching your mouth, nose, or eyes after contact with birds or surfaces that may be contaminated with saliva, mucous, or feces from wild or domestic birds.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after touching birds or other sick animals.
  • Change your clothes after contact with wild birds, poultry and sick animals.