Veterinarians and human health officials got a scare late in 2016 when a new disease showed up in cats (and people!). In New York City shelters, cats started becoming sick with H7N2, a strain of influenza A virus, which typically hadn’t made cats sick before. In fact, H7N2 is a bird flu that’s never been seen in cats—what’s more, it hasn’t been seen in any animal in almost 10 years.
What started in November as a few cats in shelters quickly spread through multiple cats, culminating in a drastic response at the end of the year. On December 29, a huge quarantine center was opened to house the entire cat population of New York City’s shelter system until the virus ran its course. This is the only way to keep it from spreading, short of euthanizing every positive cat.
Signs of bird flu in cats
So, as of mid-January, 386 cats have tested positive for H7N2. Luckily, the virus is mild in most cats. They show signs consistent with upper respiratory infections, like runny noses and weepy eyes. The virus stays contagious for three weeks, and generally starts to wane in the quarantine center, so caretakers are finally seeing a light at the end of this very snotty tunnel.
Making the jump to humans
There is another part of this story: a veterinarian who was caring for one of the original infected shelter cats was also infected with H7N2, marking the first transmission of this virus from a cat to a human.
This is scary stuff, because any time a virus does something new, it should make us sit up and take notice. How did this virus find its way to cats when it hasn’t been seen in so long? Who is patient zero? We got lucky this time, because this particular virus is not especially virulent (meaning it doesn’t cause severe illness). The affected veterinarian had mild illness and recovered quickly, just like many of the feline patients do.
To be sure, this is a very strange case. It certainly doesn’t change my recommendations about whether you should be snuggling with your pet when you’re sick (or vice versa). Use common sense and good hand washing, just as with everything else. Unless you recently adopted a cat from a shelter in New York City who’s showing signs of an upper respiratory infection. In that case, you should contact your regular veterinarian or the adopting shelter for advice or possible testing.
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