Many people find that cats are excellent companions, but just like other animals such as rats or birds, they, too, can carry and transmit germs and diseases. Such is the case in New York City when an animal shelter experienced an outbreak of low pathogenic avian influenza H7N2. Though the virus most often circulates among birds, in this particular case, the cats' in the shelter were most likely exposed to birds with the said virus.
Influenza's generally contagious nature makes H7N2 concerning, especially as it seems to spread quickly among cats. Though not particularly deadly and the H7N2 cases in New York is generally considered mild to moderate, the death of at least one cat during the outbreak warns pet owners to be more cautious.
H7N2 is Not Cat Flu
Though the name sounds appropriate for H7N2, Cat Flu differs from H7N2 completely. For one thing, H7N2 is the influenza virus that cats can contract directly from birds. The root of the virus originates from birds and is then passed on to cats, whereas Cat Flu is the general term for the cat's version of the human colds. It is not caused by the influenza virus, and cannot be transmitted to humans.
H7N2 spreads among cats the same way that the influenza virus spreads among humans- via direct contact. Any direct exposure of your feline companions to infected birds could make them susceptible to the virus, especially via air droplets, saliva or nasal discharge. Cats can pass on the virus to other cats in a similar manner. Symptoms of H7N2 include fever, sneezing, coughing, loss of appetite and lack of energy. In severe cases, cats may later on develop complications such as pneumonia and other bacterial infections.
Though the Center For Disease Control (CDC) sees the virus as a serious health threat, the case in the New York animal shelter remains an isolated case and the likelihood of your pet cat contracting the virus is still low.
Are Humans At Risk?
Humans' susceptibility to the virus is one of the reasons for the CDC's concerns. Late last year, a veterinarian in the very animal shelter where the outbreak occurred contracted the virus. Though the likelihood of humans getting the virus from cats is very low, the veterinarian's prolonged and unprotected exposure to at least 45 infected cats during the outbreak increased his risk factors. The veterinarian was the only one who contracted the virus among the dozens of individuals screened and has since recovered from the mild illness. The method of transmission of the virus from cat to human remains to be via direct contact with an infected cat's secretions. Further, there is no vaccine available yet against the virus for both humans and felines.
This is the very first recorded case of the bird to cat to human transmission of the virus. As such, even without the threat of the H7N2, the CDC advises thorough washing of hands after direct contact with cats or any or their secretions, or after handling the litter box.