We’ve known for a while that cats and ferrets are susceptible to many human influenza viruses, something that was again demonstrated last year through sporadic (and often fatal) reports of H1N1 influenza in both species. Since H1N1 is still in circulation in the human population, there’s still a risk of exposure of cats and ferrets, as was seen in an outbreak at a ferret shelter in Kentucky that began last month.

Over a few weeks, starting in early February, all 17 ferrets at the Ferret Villa Shelter in Erlanger, KY, developed influenza. As expected, coughing, sneezing, fever and lethargy were the first signs of disease, with more severe respiratory disease developing in some. One ferret died, and H1N1 was diagnosed through post mortem testing. Presumably, all of the other sick ferrets had influenza as well. Fortunately, the other 16 ferrets survived with supportive care and should presumably suffer no long-term effects.

There’s been no mention of the source of the virus, but it almost certainly came from an infected person. Given the susceptibility of ferrets to influenza and the potential for severe illness, ferret owners should be aware of the risk and restrict contact between their ferrets and anyone with flu-like disease. Ferret shelters or breeders, with larger numbers of ferrets, should take extra precautions.

The risk of transmission from ferrets to people isn’t known, but it’s logical to assume that there is some degree of risk. An infected ferret could quite plausibly shed enough virus to infect a person under the right circumstances. However, since influenza in a pet ferret most likely came from its owner, and most ferrets don’t meet many people outside of their households, the risk to other people in most households is probably limited – most people would probably be exposed via the person who was originally sick before they had a chance to get it from the ferret.

(Photo credit: Luke Rutherford)