Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

There has been much media coverage in the past several weeks about the H1N1 pandemic virus. While it continues to be a medical issue that individuals and society, in general, must deal with, it has not yet, and it is unlikely that it will become, a serious health threat for our pets.

As of this being written, there has been one confirmed case of H1N1 virus infection diagnosed in a 13 year old, indoor cat in Iowa. There have been no confirmed cases in dogs. The affected cat was presented to the Veterinary Medical Centre at Iowa State University on Oct. 27, 2009. It was showing symptoms of malaise and depression.  Its owner confirmed that three members of the household had experienced flu-like symptoms prior to the cat's illness, although whether they suffered from the H1N1 virus was not yet known. Veterinary clinicians decided the cat should be tested for H1N1 and Iowa State laboratories confirmed it was infected by the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus. It was released from the animal hospital the same day, with standard care instructions for cat with such signs of illness, and antibiotics to resolve any secondary infections. Apparently the cat is alive and well, following an unremarkable recovery from its illness.

While even this one case provides strong evidence that cats be infected with the H1N1 virus, it does not show that cats can spread the virus to humans.  Some veterinary virologists speculate that the viral load in an infected cat's nose might not be great enough to infect a human or a cat's sneeze might not be powerful enough to spread the virus to its owners. Nevertheless, if a pet cat is showing symptoms that could be caused by an influenza infection, for its health and the health of others in the family, it should be seen by a veterinarian.

What are the symptoms to be on the look out for? Clinical signs such as sneezing, coughing, fever and lethargy are not specific for influenza and therefore cannot be considered diagnostic. Influenza in animals, as it does in people, can cause highly variable disease, ranging from very mild to very severe signs of illness.  There is not a lot known about H1N1 influenza in different animal species, but it is likely it can produce a similar wide range in severity of disease. Seek the help of your veterinarian whenever your pet's health is in question. Laboratory testing is necessary to make the diagnosis of H1N1 infection.

Early in this current pandemic, it appears that ferrets are the most likely pet animal species to be affected by the H1N1 virus. There are continuing reports of pet ferrets becoming infected with the virus. This not is not surprising. Ferrets have shown themselves to be quite susceptible to other strains of influenza, in the past. The good news is that most ferrets, with appropriate medical care, appear to recover well from H1N1 influenza.

Vigilance is always wise when dealing with a disease that has been shown to move between species. H1N1 has been shown to affect swine and poultry. Little is yet known as to the risk the virus poses to pet birds. It is, however, probably significant that, at least to the present, there have been many cases of H1N1 in humans, but they are exceedingly rare in pets.    

We should be reassured that in the first week of November, 2009, the World Health Organization issued a statement that extensive testing has shown that the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus has not mutated to a more virulent form. In addition, the WHO emphasized that H1N1 in pets were " isolated events and pose no special risk to human health."