It’s that time of year again – we’re coming up on flu season, and the ads on the radio and the television are out, encouraging everyone to get their "flu shot," (aka influenza vaccination). Influenza isn’t just a problem in people – it is a very versatile group of viruses that can infect many different species of animals.
Equine and swine influenza viruses cause serious problems in horses and pigs, respectively. Last year there was a massive outbreak of equine influenza in Australia. Because Australia was previous free of equine influenza, most of the horses there had never been vaccinated against the virus. Therefore the entire population was very susceptible to the disease and it spread very quickly. The outbreak has since been brought under control. A previous Worms & Germs post talked about an outbreak of canine influenza in dogs in Chicago IL this past summer.
Equine and canine influenza (and usually swine influenza) cannot be transmitted to people. However, there are some strains of influenza that can cross species. The most well-recognized one is certainly avian influenza (bird flu), which caused outbreaks in a number of Asian countries in 2004. Although people are much less susceptible to avian influenza than birds, the H5N1strain has caused significant illness and fatalities in people.
A lesser known fact about influenza is that pet ferrets are very susceptible to the virus, including human strains. This is part of the reason ferrets are often used as animal models of the disease in research studies. Signs of the flu in ferrets are similar to what you’d expect to see in people – fever, sneezing, runny nose and lethargy. A pet ferret can both transmit to and catch the flu from a person. Unfortunately for the ferrets, there is no available vaccine for the flu in these animals.
Lucky for us, people can be vaccinated against influenza. Most people are still far more likely to get the flu from another person than from any kind of animal. Getting your flu shot is the best way to help prevent yourself from getting the flu, and spreading it to others. However, it’s important to remember that no vaccine is 100% protective, so it’s still important to take a few common-sense precautions, like washing your hands frequently, and sneezing/coughing into the crook of your arm, not into your hands. (And watch out for sick ferrets!)
There is lots of information about influenza and flu vaccine available on the web, including some of the links in this post, and also on the CDC Influenza (Flu) website.