Runny nose. Sneezing. Coughing. Fever. These classic signs of influenza usually lead people to be extra careful about spreading the virus, and even limit contact with family members. Now, veterinarians are cautioning owners to do the same with their pets.
Cases of pets with the H1N1 virus, commonly known as swine flu, have been reported around the country. In the region, four ferrets and a cat in Oregon have tested positive for the virus, according to the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association, as well as a cat in Iowa.
“I think the key message is to take care of their pets much like they take care of family, in the way you handle them when you’re sick,” said Dr. Emilio DeBess, Oregon’s public health veterinarian.
H1N1 among household pets has surprised animal officials and raised questions for owners about what they should do during this year’s flu season. Veterinarians said owners should be aware of the cases but should not be alarmed. Most of the pets, except for one ferret in Nebraska and the cat in Oregon, have recovered. Currently, there are no reports of dogs testing positive for swine flu.
DeBess said this is the first time he’s seeing evidence of flu transmission from humans to pets. He said there were signs of influenza-like illness in the household before the animals became sick. And most of the animals that have tested positive were indoor pets who had limited or no contact to the outside world.
Flu among animals is not new, but public health officials have generally been worried about viruses being passed from animals to humans, not the other way around. In the past, cases of influenza transmission have been tracked between species. The canine flu, known as H3N8, popped up in 2004 and passed from horses to dogs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also reported cases of domestic cats contracting avian flu from birds.
The first case of a companion animal with H1N1 in Oregon was discovered in early October. A Portland veterinarian consulted with DeBess about a pet ferret who was weak, had an elevated temperature, and was sneezing and coughing. The owner also reported her family having influenza-like symptoms prior to the animal getting sick. DeBess said a sample of the ferret’s nasal secretions was sent to the Oregon State University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, which confirmed a diagnosis of H1N1.
Veterinarians said ferrets, birds and pet pigs seem to be most at risk of getting the virus. They said owners should watch for symptoms similar to those that humans with the flu experience, such as fever, nasal congestion and respiratory problems. The animals might also lose their appetite or change their usual behaviors.
Oakland, Ore., resident Pauline Childers said she noticed late last month that her pet ferret, Snoopy, was not acting like himself. He kept sneezing and would bang his head against the cage. When another ferret, Houdini, got sick, Childers contacted her veterinarian.
“I kinda got worried about him,” said Childers, who has owned ferrets for about 15 years and currently has nine. She said she was advised to bring in the three sickest animals to the doctor.
Alan Ross, of the Companion Animal Clinic in Roseburg, where the ferrets were treated, said he decided to test for H1N1 after hearing about the first case in Portland.
“The light came on; I just read about this,” said Ross. “(I said) ‘Better bring them in,’ and sure enough, they came out positive for H1N1.”
Ross said he thinks the ferrets caught the virus from people living in the household. The ferrets had some signs of the flu after Childers’ daughter and granddaughter, who live with her, exhibited flulike symptoms. After being treated, the ferrets are all doing well, said Childers.
The best treatment for pets who get the flu is supportive care, veterinarians said. Pets may be prescribed medicine to keep a fever or cough down. The animals should also get enough fluids and food. There are no vaccines for pets to prevent the virus.
This year’s flu season has been full of warnings and advice from public health officials about different ways to limit the reach of both seasonal flu and the H1N1 virus. When it comes to pets, veterinarians said the same advice holds true. Owners should be vigilant about observing symptoms. And household animals should be handled using preventive measures, like washing hands, covering one’s mouth when coughing or sneezing and limiting contact when sick.
For veterinarians, knowing about the possibility of virus transmission from humans to pets is making them ask new questions of their clients.
“We’re much more direct about what we’re delving into,” said Deborah Hodesson, of the Central Oregon Animal Hospital and a member of the board of directors of the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association.
Local veterinarians said they continue to be updated by state officials on any new information about H1N1 in pets as the flu season progresses. And as they get new information, they are also fielding more questions from clients.
“People are certainly more in tune with their animals here,” Hodesson said. “The main thing we want people to know is that they don’t need to panic.”