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Can You Give Your Pet the Flu?

By Linda Cole

No one looks forward to the flu. The chills, aches and pains can send even the hardiest person to bed for a few days. We try to do what we can to avoid the flu, but when symptoms appear, we know people around us are at risk of catching what we have. It was thought at one time that pets in the home couldn't be infected, but new research is raising a red flag that says it is possible to pass the flu bug to our pets.

So how do you know if you're dealing with a cold or the flu? After all, they have common symptoms. Colds enter the body via the nose and primarily affect us above the neck with runny nose, sneezing, congestion and sore throat. Some people might have an achy feeling, with a low grade temperature. You know you're coming down with a cold because symptoms develop over a period of a couple of days. The flu hits you like a brick. One minute you're fine and the next you're wrestling with muscle aches, chills, fever, fatigue and tightness in your chest, all of which are likely to send you to bed. Other symptoms can include a running nose or cough, but not as severe as with a cold.

The common belief for years was that our pets couldn't catch the flu from their owner, but new research has challenged this with studies that show it is possible. When an infectious disease moves from animals to humans, it's called zoonosis. Reverse zoonosis happens when humans infect animals. In 2009, the H1N1 flu virus, also known as the swine flu, had the first ever recorded case of a human transmitting the flu to her two cats. The woman recovered, but her cats died. Since then, 11 cats, one dog and a handful of ferrets have been infected with the flu after having contact with a sick human.

Veterinarians at Iowa State and Oregon State Universities have been doing research to determine how common cases of reverse zoonosis are, and it's not fully understood how the process works. However, recent studies have turned up surprising results showing it's more common than once thought for us to infect our pets with the flu. In a study unrelated to the Iowa/Oregon State research, after analyzing blood samples from cats and dogs, scientists found 30 percent of cats had evidence of being infected with the seasonal flu, and 20 percent had traces of H1N1 virus.

There are 1,415 known pathogens that affect humans and 61 percent of them are zoonotic, which means the infectious disease was transmitted to us from animals. Researchers have good evidence to support the belief that measles, HIV and smallpox originated in animals first. But there hasn't been as much research into humans infecting animals.

So yes, you can give your pet the flu. Symptoms in pets are similar to ours: fatigue, congestion, runny nose and sneezing. If you have the flu, snuggling with your pet probably isn't a good idea; also, avoid sneezing or coughing in your pet's face.

A new strain of dog flu, A H3N8, was uncovered in 2004 in racing Greyhounds in a Florida kennel. Dogs were infected with a virus originally found in horses. There have been no reports of this strain crossing over to humans, but it's a serious illness dog owners should be aware of. When it was first reported, the new flu strain had already made dogs extremely ill, and some of them died. Since then, a vaccine has been developed for dog owners who want to give their pet some protection, and for dogs that are high risk because of age or medical conditions. However, the vaccine doesn't prevent the virus, it only lessens the effects of this highly contagious disease. There have been sporadic outbreaks in different areas of the country, so it wouldn't hurt to check with your vet to see if a flu shot is recommended for your dog.

When an infectious disease crosses over to other species, there's always a concern for mutations that can make the virus more dangerous and harder to control. The best advice is to refuse your pet's desire to keep you company while you're sick and keep them at a distance. If you suspect your pet has caught your flu, as a precaution you should have your cat or dog checked out by your vet. The flu can be serious for at-risk pets, just like it is for at-risk humans, and they can die from complications of the flu. Protect your pet by not snuggling up with him when you're sick. He may not understand, but you will be doing him a favor and hopefully keeping him healthy.

Dog photo by sfbox
Cat photo by Takashi Hososhima

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