Yes, cats can get the flu, just like dogs. So what are the symptoms, and how do we help our feline friends feel better?
How do cats catch the flu?
The strains of the flu that cats can catch likely came from a past form of bird flu. Just like the flu that affects humans, the strains of cat flu evolve every year. Scientists have to use the same processes to determine which strains are going to be strongest each flu season. They then use these to create vaccines for cats (and dogs) to help protect them against the worst flu strains and keep them from getting sick.
For a long time, animal scientists thought that pets and their humans could not transfer the flu to one another, because each species of animal contracts a different strain of the flu, even if everyone gets the same runny eyes and lethargic behavior. However, recent studies have introduced reverse zoonosis, which theorizes that humans can actually make their pets sick. Just as humans catch flu strains from birds and pigs, the flu virus may cross species from humans to animals as well. There isn't much evidence yet, but the thought is concerning all the same.
Veterinary Pathology published the details of the first probable case of fatal human to cat flu transmission in 2009. A pet owner from Oregon became severely ill with the flu and was hospitalized. Her cat—an indoor cat with no connection to other sick people or wildlife—died of pneumonia caused by a H1N1 (swine flu) infection. Researchers have since identified a total of thirteen cats and one dog with pandemic H1N1 influenza that appears to have come from humans. While this is far from conclusive evidence, it does change the old assumptions that our pets won’t catch our illnesses.
When I'm sick, one of the things that makes me feel better is when my cat jumps on my lap and helps me sleep. After learning that I may be able to transmit diseases to my cat, I am much more careful about doing this. I make sure never to sneeze on or near my cat, and always wash my hands before handling her until I am better.
How do I know if my cat has the flu?
When your cat gets the flu, her symptoms may appear pretty similar to the ones you get when you have the flu. You may observe that she develops runny eyes and nose or mouth ulcers; she may dribble her food or sneeze a lot; she may lose her ability to meow (like losing your voice). You won't be able to see that she also may have a sore throat, aches and pains in the muscles and joints, or even a fever. Adult cats are less likely to get the flu than kittens, but if your cat displays any of these symptoms, you should take her to the vet right away. Cat flu is contagious, so keep sick cats away from other cats in your home or the neighborhood.
How do I help my sick cat feel better?
Just as with humans, there are no effective viral drugs to combat the flu in cats. Take your cat to the vet right away, but don't expect a surefire cure. If your cat does come down with the flu, a blocked nose and mouth ulcers can cause a cat to stop eating and drinking. In this case, really stinky food like sardines can help entice them to eat. Though you should generally use caution when giving your pet dairy products, cream or ice cream may help soothe the irritation of mouth ulcers. Just like a human, encourage your cat to drink lots of water. Mixing water with your cat's food can help her stay hydrated. Wipe away any discharges from her eyes and nose. If both of you are comfortable with it, let her hang out in the bathroom while you shower so the steam can help any respiratory problems. Naturally, extra love and attention will go a long way to making your whiskered friend feel better while under the weather.
Michael Ryan is a full-time musician along with a humor, travel and outdoor recreation columnist. He's also an avid skier and golfer and has traveled extensively around the U.S, the Caribbean and Europe. His musical career takes him all over the U.S. and his wife drags him everywhere else. His weekly columns “The Life of Ryan” ran in the Transcript and Sentinel newspaper chain for several years and have been featured in the Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News and Mile High Magazine. He is the co-founder, editor and humor columnist for ColoradoLocalLegends.com and currently resides in Morrison, Colorado.