Pets And Bird Flu: What To Know

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Topline
Bird flu has spread between farm mammals in at least five states this year, and health agencies note pets like cats and dogs may be susceptible if they’re exposed to infected animals, though transmission to humans is unlikely.
dog and cat, looking out the window together getty
Key Facts
Bird flu (also called avian flu) refers to a group of potentially deadly infections caused by avian influenza Type A viruses, and typically infects domestic poultry and wild migratory birds. Although bird flu usually spreads between birds, it is possible for the infection to spread to mammals like domestic dogs and cats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Domestic animals can become infected with bird flu if they eat or are exposed to sick or dead birds that are infected with the virus, and cats are the most susceptible domestic animals to become infected, according to the Kentucky Department for Public Health. Since 2022, the U.S. has reported over 200 cases of bird flu in mammals, and several other countries have reported bird flu in domestic animals, including cats in Thailand, Germany, Poland and South Korea, and dogs in Canada and Italy. Although it can occur, the chances of people catching bird flu from their pet dogs and cats are extremely unlikely, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Symptoms of bird flu in cats and dogs include a fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, difficulty breathing, conjunctivitis (or pink eye)and neurological signs like seizures and tremors, and death is also a possible outcome.
Key Background
The Department of Agriculture announced bird flu was detected in dairy herds in Texas and Kansas on March 25. The agency later discovered dairy herds in Michigan, New Mexico and Idaho were also infected. Minnesota also reported a case of bird flu in a goat on March 20, which is the first case of infection in a “domestic ruminant” in the U.S., referring to many common grazing mammals in the U.S., including domestic cattle, according to the AVMA. On April 1, Texas officials announced the second known case of a type of bird flu called H5N1 in a person in the U.S., which was spread from exposure to cattle. The first occurred in 2022 when a person in Colorado contracted the disease from infected poultry. This case “does not change the risk for the general public, which remains low,” according to the Texas Department of State Health Services’ announcement. The patient reported eye redness as their only symptom, and is being treated with antiviral medication, the CDC reports. Though human infection is rare, there have been 887 reported cases between January 2003 and February 2024 in 23 countries, according to the World Health Organization. The virus can be extremely dangerous for humans who are infected, as 52% of these cases ended in death.
Tangent
A veterinarian in New York City was infected with H5N7, a type of bird flu virus, after caring for infected cats admitted into an animal shelter in November 2016, according to a study published in Clinical Infectious Disease. The cat died a few days later, and further testing discovered the virus spread throughout the facility to several other shelter cats, though other animals like dogs weren’t infected. No one who came into contact with these cats—including the 165 volunteers and employees, and over 180 adopters—were suspected of having the illness, except for the visiting veterinarian. This person had prolonged exposure without face protections with infected cats and their secretions. The veterinarian had a mild illness, which included a sore throat, cough and muscle pain, though they were treated and cured with medication without hospitalization.
Surprising Fact
The Food and Drug Administration has approved a few bird flu vaccines for humans. The U.S. has a small stockpile of vaccines for two bird flu viruses (H5N1 and H7N9), but it wouldn’t be enough to vaccinate all Americans if an outbreak were to happen among humans. If an outbreak among humans does occur, the government plans to mass produce vaccines, which can take at least six months to make enough for the entire population. Sequirs, the maker of one of the approved vaccines, expects to have 150 million vaccines ready within six months of an announcement of a bird flu pandemic. Because there are 8 billion people on the planet, that means less than 2% of the world’ population will receive the vaccine after the first six months of a potential outbreak.

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