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Health & Wellness

Avian influenza: what pet parents need to know

It’s rare for dogs and cats to contract bird flu, but here’s how to keep them safe.

In light of a recent outbreak of avian influenza, you may be concerned about keeping your pets safe from getting sick. The good news is that there’s a very low chance of your dog or cat getting bird flu, but there are still precautions you can take to protect your pets. To get the rundown on avian flu, symptoms and prevention, we spoke with Fetch’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr. Aliya McCullough.

What is avian influenza (aka bird flu)?

According to Dr. McCullough, “Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1 is a type of flu virus that primarily affects poultry and wild birds. It is spread by migratory wild birds, particularly waterfowl which can carry the virus but don’t get sick.”

Can dogs and cats contract avian flu?

It’s rare for mammals to contract bird flu, but it is possible if they come into contact with an infected bird’s saliva, feces, nasal discharge and through contaminated surfaces, Dr. McCullough says. Marine mammals, bears, foxes, skunks and even zoo animals have been infected with avian flu in the past. But there’s no reason to go into panic mode: it’s rare for a cat to become infected with avian flu and even more rare in dogs.

How can I tell if my dog or cat has avian flu?

Though it’s highly unlikely that your dog or cat will contract bird flu, Dr. McCullough says there are still a few things you can do to protect your pets. 

Cats and dogs can become infected through contact with sick or dead birds while hunting and scavenging. They can also be exposed to the virus on contaminated surfaces, like shoes that have unknowingly walked through infected feces. Some cats may only show mild symptoms, but here are some signs of bird flu in cats:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Neurologic disease (incoordination, circling)
  • Lethargy

Dogs infected with the virus can show symptoms such as lack of appetite, fever, conjunctivitis, difficulty breathing and cough. If you suspect your pet has an infection, isolate them from other pets and people in the household and contact your veterinarian. Your veterinarian can test your pet for avian flu with a fecal test or by swabbing their nasal passages, throat and rectum and sending them to a lab.

How is avian flu treated in dogs and cats?

Unfortunately there are no (HPAI) H5N1  vaccines widely available for pets, so Dr. McCullough says  preventive action is key — particularly by restricting your pet’s with birds and their feces. Keep your cats indoors if possible (sick birds are easier to catch). Also limit your cat’s contact with outdoor cats, because cat to cat transmission of the virus is possible. You should also keep a close eye on your dog while outdoors, and prevent them from hunting and scavenging dead or dying birds.

Prevention also means controlling your pet’s environment Dr. McCullough says. Limit bird watching to a distance, particularly if you live in an area with a lot of waterfowl. Remove bird feeders and birdbaths to reduce contact with birds and bird feces. Keep your shoes away from your pets. If you’ve been to an area with bird droppings, use diluted bleach to clean shoes off before coming indoors to kill any virus in bird feces that may have attached to your shoes. And as always, use good hygiene practices when feeding your pet, handling toys and food and water bowls and cleaning up their poop. 

Remember to take your pet to see their vet for regular check-ups. Ensuring your pet receives wellness examinations, vaccinations and routine testing for parasites keeps them as healthy as possible and establishes a baseline of health. We also recommend enrolling in pet insurance early, so that if you do need to take your pet to the vet for an unexpected illness or injury, Fetch can help reimburse you for the cost of treatment for covered conditions.

For additional information on avian influenza please visit: 

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  2. American Veterinary Medical Association
  3. World Organisation for Animal Health

The Dig, Fetch's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

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