Q: Cold and flu season is just around the corner—are my cats at risk for catching the flu from me if I get sick?
A: Human-to-animal transmission of an influenza virus is rare and generally considered low risk, but much depends on the viral strain. The short answer is that human-to-feline disease transmission is rare. Cats and people, though both mammals, have rather different physiologies. So most contagious viral diseases (like influenza) do not transmit easily across species.
Cats and Avian Influenza
Cats are susceptible to avian influenza, and can contract the disease from cat-to-cat transmission. The disease moves between cats much as the flu travels between humans—through airborne droplets, saliva, and close contact. Symptoms of avian influenza in cats include:
Loss of energy
Watery discharge from the nose or eyes
Symptoms usually resolve on their own but in rare cases can progress to pneumonia. If your cat displays symptoms of avian influenza and has difficulty breathing, contact your vet asap.
Cats and H1N1
The H1N1 influenza virus has seen several outbreaks in recent years, including a severe spike in 2009. In a Canadian study, investigators found significant spread of H1N1 influenza among a feral cat population. At least one of the animals had progressed to pneumonia and died as a result. Other individuals in the feline community showed symptoms and at least one other died from a similar case of pneumonia. Humans who were symptomatic with H1N1 had visited the home in the week previous, indicating human-to-feline transmission. While these findings may seem alarming, the overall incidence and risk of human-to-cat influenza transmission remain low.
In other instances, cats exposed to human influenza viruses (H1N1 and H3N2) have shown antibodies to the virus in their blood, but few became symptomatic, suggesting that transmission of aggressive disease symptoms is unlikely.
Cats and COVID-19
COVID-19 is a coronavirus, not an influenza, and differs structurally from an influenza virus. With data on COVID-19 still coming in, it’s difficult to make broad assessments; however, it seems from anecdotal reports that exposure of cats to humans with coronavirus presents a low risk for human-to-animal transmission. A note of caution—close contact with a pet that has been exposed to someone with COVID-19 should be avoided if possible, as animals could act as a vector to transmit the virus between humans.
A Note on Viral Strains
Viruses are adaptable and tenacious, and their effects on those infected can vary widely. For example, two strains of the same virus may present with widely varying symptoms. One individual may have severe symptoms, while another may have no symptoms at all. Symptom severity and type also often differ among strains. Some viruses can adapt to more easily cross species lines, such as from horses to dogs.
The particular characteristics and aggressiveness of a viral strain can greatly influence the disease presentation. And cats seem somewhat less vulnerable than dogs to cross-species transmission.
When to See the Vet
If your cat seems to be showing symptoms of influenza, observe your pet carefully. If your cat displays severe or prolonged difficulty breathing, coughing, sneezing, or lethargy, contact your vet. They can prescribe medications to ease symptoms and make your pet more comfortable during its recovery.
As pet lovers, we’re all concerned for the health and wellbeing of our animals. And with COVID-19 in the news daily, much of the world has been living at a heightened level of risk awareness regarding infectious disease transmission.
Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.