When the novel H1N1 influenza pandemic infected large numbers of people, it was not particularly surprising that the occasional infection was noted in pets, considering over 50% of North American households have pets, and the close nature of contact that many people have with their pets. While the few cases that occurred were highly publicized, in the end pet infections were rarely diagnosed (although that doesn’t mean they were truly rare), and limited information about these cases has been available. Details regarding one H1N1-infected cat from Iowa (Sponseller et al. 2010) were recently published in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • The 13-year-old cat was an indoor cat that was admitted to Iowa State University’s veterinary hospital because of depression, decreased appetite and signs of respiratory disease.
  • Two of 3 people in the house had undiagnosed influenza-like illness a few days before the cat got sick. The cat was an affectionate pet and interacted closely with household members.
  • Influenza was diagnosed in the cat by detection of H1N1 influenza virus using molecular diagnostic methods (reverse transcriptase PCR) on a sample of fluid collected from the lungs.
  • The cat improved with supportive care alone (mainly intravenous fluids to correct dehydration).

Considering the cat lived indoors and people in the house had signs consistent with influenza, it’s almost certain that the cat was infected by its owners. This isn’t surprising, but it’s a good example of how infectious diseases can move between people and pets, in either direction. There’s no evidence that pets were a source of human infection, but if something can move from people to pets, there’s certainly good reason to think that it could go back from pets to other people. This should be another wake-up call for the need to consider and investigate the potential role of pets in any emerging infectious disease, and to consider emerging "human" diseases in sick animals that might have been exposed.