Pet Care

Bird Flu

Orange striped cat with yellow eyes

Recent news reports involving cats infected with avian influenza in Europe have caused a great deal of worry amongst companion animal owners everywhere. At the ASPCA, we’ve received many queries from concerned cat caretakers who are wondering if their pets could become ill from the virus. In an effort to help educate pet guardians on the facts about this deadly disease, our experts at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center have provided some answers to the most common pet-related questions about avian flu.

What is Bird Flu?

Bird flu, or avian influenza, is an infection caused by a strain of type A orthomyxovirus known as H5N1. Many orthomyxoviruses are found naturally in wild birds, but most typically do not cause illness. The H5N1 strain, however, is very contagious, and can cause life-threatening illness in domesticated birds, including chickens, turkeys and ducks.

How does Bird Flu spread?

Infected birds shed the virus via their nasal secretions, saliva and feces. Susceptible birds can also become infected should they come into direct contact with secretions from infected wild birds or indirectly via contaminated feed, cages or other surfaces.

Is it true that other animals, such as cats, can be infected with Bird Flu?

Yes. In addition to birds and humans, tigers, leopards, ferrets, martens, pigs and domestic cats are all susceptible to avian influenza A H5N1 infection given the right circumstances and level of exposure. It is possible that other mammals may be susceptible, as well.

How did the Bird Flu virus spread from birds to cats?

To date, all reported cases of avian influenza A H5N1 infection in domestic cats have likely occurred from ingestion of infected raw poultry associated with an outbreak in wild or domestic birds.

How common is it for cats to get infected with Bird Flu?

Thus far, it has been relatively uncommon. During the 2003-04 avian influenza A H5N1 outbreak in Asia, there were only a few unofficial reports of infections in domestic cats.  In February 2006, a domestic cat was found to have died from avian influenza A H5N1 in Ruegen, an island in Northern Germany.  This region is where more than 100 wild birds were believed to have died from infection.  It is believed that the cat became ill after eating an infected bird. To date, all of the avian flu infections in cats appear to be associated with ingestion of raw, infected poultry from wild or domestic birds.

Can cats spread the Bird Flu virus to people?

There is currently no evidence demonstrating that cats can spread avian influenza A H5N1 to humans. None of the cases of avian flu in humans have been associated with exposure to infected cats, and there have been no reports of outbreaks in populations of cats.

How likely is it that cats will become infected with Bird Flu in the United States?

Avian influenza A H5N1 has not yet been detected in the United States; therefore, there is currently no known risk to cats in the United States.

If avian influenza A H5N1 is discovered in the United States, how can I protect my cat and other pets?

At this time, there is no risk of a United States cat becoming infected with the bird flu virus.  However, there are risks in certain parts of Europe, and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control has provided preliminary recommendations for cat owners living in H5N1-affected regions. These include the following:

- Keep domestic cats indoors to avoid exposure to potentially infected birds.

- Keep stray cats out of the home, and avoid contact with them.

- If a cat brings a sick or dead bird into the house or on your property, put on ordinary gloves and dispose of the bird as recommended by your Department of Agriculture.

- If your cat is sick and has potentially been in contact with birds, contact your local veterinarian.

- Notify your local veterinarian or animal control office if you discover any deceased pets.

How could Bird Flu A H5N1 impact trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs for feral cats?

TNR is a humane method of managing feral cat colonies that involves trapping the animals, spaying or neutering and vaccinating them, and then returning the animals to where they were found. As these cats are living virtually on the streets, they could potentially be at higher risk for contracting avian influenza A H5N1 if they are in areas where the virus is present and if they consume infected raw wild or domestic poultry or other birds. Currently, there is no risk of becoming infected with H5N1 to cats living in the United States.

Where can I find more information about avian influenza A H5N1 in cats?

For additional information, you may wish to visit the following sites:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
American Veterinary Medical Association
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control