The picture on the right is a Picasso painting entitled "Cat catching a bird". I often use this picture in presentations and ask "What if that bird was infected with avian flu?"
Avian flu is a tremendous concern at the moment. While it is not (currently) easily transmitted between people, bird-to-human infections have been reported in various countries. Mortality rates are very high, and the concern is that this strain could change to become easily transmitted between people, and lead to a pandemic (worldwide outbreak) not seen since the Spanish flu pandemic in the early 20th century. While birds and people are the focus, some attention has been paid to other species, such as cats.
Fatal avian flu developed in leopards and tigers in a zoo in Thailand during an avian flu outbreak. It was suspected that they ate infected chickens. Similarly, avian influenza in a pet cat was thought to have resulted from eating a dead pigeon (the pigeon presumably having died of avian flu). The potential role of cats in transmitting disease was highlighted by a study that reported that cats can become infected by eating infected birds, and can transmit avian flu to other cats.
While unproven, cats could theoretically play a role in transmitting this virus from birds to people. It’s unlikely cats would be a major factor in a flu pandemic, but if such a situation were to arise, any possible source of transmission would need to be considered.
Should we worry about cats and avian flu right now? Worry….no. Be aware….yes. H5N1 avian influenza is not currently present in North America and it’s hard to say if/when it will appear.
Should we think about cats when making plans for management of avian influenza if/when if reaches us? Absolutely. It’s issues like this that get overlooked in outbreak planning.
Should I keep my cat inside? Yes. Outdoor cats are exposed to a large number of different infectious agents, including parasites and bacteria that can infect people. Outdoor cats can also get into fights, during which animals can transmit important diseases or cause nasty wounds. Also (obviously), an indoor cat isn’t like to get hit by a cat…an important cause of premature death in cats.
Avian flu is just one more indication that our relationship with infectious diseases is much more complex than we’ve thought, and that broad (ecological) approaches to infectious disease control are required. We need to think about household pets when considering emerging infectious diseases because of the close and prolonged contact that millions of people have with their pets.