I Can Has Swine Flu? A Cat Comes Down with H1N1

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Michael Waine / Corbis

For all the attention that has whirled around H1N1 in recent months, it seems that one vulnerable, and furry, population may have been overlooked: the family pet.

On Wednesday, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported the first confirmed case of H1N1 in a house pet, a 13-year-old domestic shorthaired cat. The animal likely contracted the virus from its owners, veterinarians say, since two of the three family members living in the cat's household had recently suffered from influenza-like illness. Late last week, when the cat came down with flu-like symptoms — malaise, loss of appetite — its owners brought it to Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine for treatment. The family mentioned to the vet that they had also recently battled illness, which led to testing the pet for H1N1.

H1N1 is a combination of influenza strains; one part originated in pigs, and another in birds. So far, only swine and ferrets, which are particularly susceptible to the flu, have become infected with H1N1.

It's not yet clear how vulnerable cats, dogs and other household animals may be to the new virus, but the Iowa cat's case reinforces just how different H1N1 is from seasonal flu viruses. Although some household cats and certain wild cats in zoos have gotten ill with avian influenza, and dogs have their own canine version of the flu virus, pets don't normally get sick with the regular human flu. "There has never been a report of human seasonal influenza affecting cats or dogs," says Dr. Julie Levy, director of Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program at the College of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Florida.

It's possible that the Iowa cat's case may be a bellwether of future pet disease, but it's also possible it was just a fluke event. At the cat's advanced age, its immune system may not have been as adept at fending off influenza as that of a younger animal — similar to the vulnerability seen in aging humans. Still, says Dr. Ann Garvey, state public-health vet at the Iowa Department of Public Health, "We just don't know, we really don't."

Garvey notes that despite nearly 25,000 cases of positive, lab-confirmed H1N1 in people reported in the U.S. since last spring, the Iowa cat is the first pet to be documented with the virus. But before pet owners start suspecting Fido and Fluffy of being H1N1 hotbeds, Garvey stresses that so far, no cases of influenza of any kind in pets — including cases of bird flu — are known to have moved from animals into people. And even among the animals, the virus does not appear to spread easily, which may further suggest that pets are not ideal reservoirs for influenza.

That's good news for pet lovers and flu worriers. And so is the fact that the cat seems to be recovering well from its bout with H1N1. "Both the owners and the cat are recovering," says Garvey. As for anyone else who is worried about spreading H1N1 flu to their pets, vets recommend following the same guidelines that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest for protecting family members — wash your hands frequently, cover your coughs and try to avoid close contact with your furry friends until you're well.