Animal owners warned they could pass the flu to their pets
9th October 2012
With the weather starting to change as we approach the winter months, temperatures are noticeably dropping, scarves and gloves are being dusted off for use and unfortunately many of us will be struck down with colds and influenza. If you are unwell then there is a good chance you will possibly want to get cosy in front of your fire and cuddle up to your pet dog or cat, however – think again. Scientists in the United States are now claiming that humans could pass on their flu infection to our furry friends. Though the risk is relatively small, they say that awareness needs to be raised about the generally unknown condition ‘reverse zoonosis’, but it has caused some degree of concern amongst health experts and veterinarians. Influenza is a respiratory illness, more serious than a typical common cold. People are at risk of getting the flu throughout the year, but are more at risk during the winter months, hence where the name ‘seasonal flu’ is spawned from. The symptoms of the condition include aching muscles and joints, coughing, fever, headache and a sore throat. Flu can be so debilitating that often the sufferer is confined to their bed for a few days due to exhaustion. In the UK alone there are an estimated 600 deaths annually due to complications arising from seasonal flu. This figure can skyrocket to about 13,000 fatalities during an epidemic, such as the swine flu outbreak of 2009. The swine flu was a new variant of the common H1N1 virus (responsible for the majority of flu cases) and was so deadly partly because people didn’t have much of an immunity to it as it had not previously been discovered in humans or pigs. The pandemic was curbed to a massive extent with the wonder medication Tamiflu, which prevents influenza virus from spreading inside the body and helps to ease or prevent the symptoms arising from the influenza virus infection. It is also the H1N1 flu strain that is being seen in human to pet transmissions. Christiane Loehr, an associate professor at Oregon State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, says that ever since the 1970s experts have been aware that cats are at risk of catching the flu and in the year 2000 it became apparent that dogs could get it as well. Despite this, there was incredibly little in the way of reported instances of such occurrences happening. Approximately 80 to 100 million households in the U.S. have a cat or dog, and 20 million in the UK. With such a high number of pets, researchers warn it may be best to distance ourselves from our pets when we next get struck down with symptoms of the flu. The first confirmed case of a fatal human to cat transmission happened in Oregon in 2009 says Professor Loehr, with the pandemic H1N1 virus being the culprit. The cat’s owner had become seriously unwell from the flu and had to be taken to hospital. Whilst in hospital, her cat also became ill with the flu and subsequently died due to pneumonia caused by the H1N1 virus. Since this tragic event, health experts have witnessed 13 cats and one dog with pandemic H1N1 infection during 2011 to 2012 that came about from human transmission. Even some pet ferrets have been found to be infected and a few died. Professor Loehr is currently conducting further research into reverse zoonosis. She says, “We worry a lot about zoonosis, the transmission of diseases from animals to people. But most people don’t realize that humans can also pass diseases to animals, and this raises questions and concerns about mutations, new viral forms and evolving diseases that may potentially be zoonotic. And, of course, there is concern about the health of the animals. It’s reasonable to assume there are many more cases of this than we know about, and we want to learn more. Any time you have infection of a virus into a new species, it’s a concern, a black box of uncertainty. We don’t know for sure what the implications might be, but we do think this deserves more attention.”