Cats used to be considered immune to influenza. Even crafty researchers could not infect them with the virus. Then zoo cats in Asia were fed birds that died of avian influenza. They contracted fatal cases of the flu and, moreover, were able to transmit the disease to other cats. In the laboratory, cats could be infected with avian flu either by inhaling or eating the virus and could then transmit it to other cats. It had a fairly high mortality rate.
Today, I learned that avian flu is wide spread among cats in Indonesia. In a survey of cats in areas of the country where humans had contracted the flu, about 20% of the 500 stray cats tested had antibodies to the virus. These were the cats that had contracted influenza and survived. It is likely that many more cats had caught the flu and died from it.
Other animals, pigs and dogs, have also gotten avian flu. Should we be concerned? I think yes. The 1918 flu was a bird virus that adapted to mammals through an intermediate host, probably the pig. One expert now suggests that “Maybe for H5N1, the intermediate host is cats.” The more opportunities cats and humans have to eat infected animals, the more opportunity the virus has to mutate to a transmissible form.
And to make matters worse, in Jakarta authorities are slaughtering large numbers of chickens that are then provided as free food to people in the area. It is possible for chickens to have mild cases of avian flu and not appear symptomatic. They could still infect the person or cat eating them, creating more opportunities for the virus to adapt and mutate. Obviously, the potential for avian flu to turn into a more transmissible form still looms on the horizon.