Avian influenza: is it dangerous for our pets?

Professor A.V. Sanin, N.F. Gamaleya Research Institute for Epidemiology and Microbiology, the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences

There is hardly a single person, who has never heard of the threat of avian influenza. Just a few months after the first cases of mass disease among birds were detected, the question began to be raised as to how dangerous the H5N1 virus is for mammals, including humans. It is known that mammals (humans, as well as horses, pigs, cats, dogs, mice, seals, etc.) are susceptible to influenza viruses carried by birds. The main source of infection is sick birds and carriers that shed the virus in faeces. 1 g of droppings of a bird affected with avian influenza is enough to infect 1 million of birds. The infection develops especially easily and quickly in the organism weakened by anthropogenic and other stresses.

It has been found that the avian influenza virus can be carried by dogs and cats. Back in late 2004, the virus was detected in South-Easten Thailand in a dog, and soon Nature journal wrote that during examination of 600 stray dogs, again in Thailand, the avian influenza virus was detected in 15%. The same strain was also found in 8 of 110 cats examined.

The fact of infecting felines was first discovered incidentally, after feeding tigers and leopards kept in captivity with raw chicken meat infected with H5N1. The animals fell ill themselves and then infected their congeners. Almost all sick animals died.

Unfortunately, domestic cats are also at risk. Recently, the media reported the first case of a cat’s death from bird flu in Germany. The cat infected with H5N1 was found in the island of Ruegen, where about 100 cases of avian influenza was detected among birds. Specialists believe that the cat’s died because it had eaten the meat of a wild bird infected with H5N1, which is characterized by high pathogenicity. Alternatively, the cat lived in a farm where it could contact with infected birds.

In early March 2006, the first deaths of cats from bird flu were detected in Dagestan.

Cats have the same symptoms of disease as affected birds – first, the disease is manifested by sneezing, coughing and conjunctivitis, catarrhal symptoms. According to American Journal of Pathology, the H5N1 virus affects the cat’s lungs and some other organs.

It is important to remember that if the owner lets their dog or cat to go out (especially, in rural areas) where they may contact with wild birds-carriers of H5N1 and/or their faeces, later the infection from the domestic animal can pass on to the human. And vice versa, a man can bring to the house some bird faeces on shoes, which can lead to infecting a cat or a dog.

Experts believe that the main danger of the avian influenza epidemics threatens European countries at the end of March – beginning of April, when migrating birds come back from Africa. In the European part of Russia the most dangerous urban birds are starlings that fly back from epidemically unfavorable regions of the Mediterranean. It is desirable to limit uncontrolled staying of domestic animals outside even now. Moreover, it is important not to feed birds on the windowsill to avoid the contact with their faeces.

In addition, the effectiveness of preventive measures can be substantially increased by protecting dogs and cats using modern drugs that enhance the natural resistance of the organism and immune response to vaccines. One of such drugs that, in addition, has antiviral activity and is used (especially in combination with Gamavit) to prevent stress, is widely known Phosprenyl. Testing the drug in cell cultures infected with highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus showed that prior (1 hour before infecting) administration of Phosprenyl can suppress the cytopathic activity of the virus. In addition, Phosprenyl has adjuvant properties (increases the immunogenicity of vaccines in joint application).

So, is the bird flu dangerous for our pets?

Apparently, the danger is very real, but one should keep in mind the saying "Forewarned is forearmed!" A number of timely preventive measures (including hygienic ones, avoiding contact of dogs and cats with sick birds, the use of Phosprenyl and other drugs for prevention) increases the chances for a successful outcome. If the vaccine for prevention the disease caused by the H5N1 avian influenza in cats and dogs is developed, it is appropriate to administer Phosprenyl together with the vaccine.

It should also be noticed that the real preventive effect of the vaccine appears approximately one month after vaccination, while Phosprenyl and similar drugs will be effective in a few days.