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Will swine flu make the leap to pets?

Posted Aug 12 2009 10:21pm

In recent history, few viruses have led to the widespread fear that attends the H1N1 epidemic.

HIV? It’s not fast-moving enough and the can’t-hit-me-ism that attends it makes it not-so-scary to “common folk.” Ebola? Puh-lease. It may be gruesome but that’s one for Africans, we conjecture. But the swine flu? Nasty stuff. And it targets wholesome pregnant women, to boot. It’s a definite possibility––and it kills...fast.

Recent media stories on the summer hardiness of the H1N1 strain haven’t helped our mood any. Nor have recent reports on the jumpiness of this particular flu strain when it comes to other species. After all, this one ostensibly came from birds and pigs and carries the triple-threat marked by human DNA, too.

But can H1N1 affect your pets? I’ve seen this issue all over the web in recent weeks. Never mind the humans. That we know. But how about our pets? If we happen to come down with the swine flu, what to do with our dogs, cats, birds, gerbils? Do we quarantine them, too? Move them to mother-in-law’s? Board them at the kennel? Beg our veterinarian to test them? How would we even know if they’re sick?

Truth is, we don’t know what’s safest. And there is no common test. But the one thing scientists do seem to agree on is that the H1N1 strain has not yet seemed to affect birds or any domesticated animal with the obvious exception of pigs. So if you happen to keep pigs and come down with the swine flu you’d do well to keep them as far away as possible and quarantined for as long as commercial pigs are asked to be (at least a month––maybe more depending on the number you keep).

Scientists are unsure how likely the possibility of transmission to non-pig pets might be, but they do tell us that the new swine flu strain, by virtue of its DNA mix, has shown itself to be especially well-tuned to sucking in new bits of helpful genetic material from other influenza viruses. That alone makes it extra-scary from a pandemic point of view.

Regardless, the biggest threat on the horizon is not to your cat or dog, it’s about our birds. Even then, explains the World Health Organization, the most likely scenario is one that’ll “refuel” in Asia first. That’s because the bird flu endemic to this region is a likelier target for inclusion into the H1N1 version on the virus than any other we’re currently aware of. Which means we’ll probably have time to formulate an approach for how we deal with our pet birds in advance of its eastward journey. Probably.

It’s not my goal to scare you. In fact, cat and dog owners reading this should be breathing a sigh of relief. Our most commonly kept pets are safe from the strain currently making the rounds.

And this flu virus? It’s not that much more lethal or catching than many of the influenza viruses that kill humans every day in this country. It just happens to have a few tricks up its sleeve. And, for that, we need to be vigilant and take precautions, including vaccination for pregnant women (I’d do it). That’s all.

Here’s hoping we can all keep things in perspective as we head out into this Fall’s flu season. Especially when it comes to our pets.

 

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