This past week, my dog has taken a regimen of 4 pills, 2x/day with meals… for a cough. Yes, he is the first of my household to fall victim to the seasonal sickness. Now, I am not a veterinarian nor do I claim to be an expert in canine health, but the fact that my dog was prescribed meds for what seemed to be the “standard cold” got me thinking about zoonoses, reverse zoonoses, and when the next inter-species influenza epidemic could strike.
The World Health Organization defines zoonoses as diseases or infections that are “naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans.” They can be transmitted through viruses, bacteria, or other agents.
Reverse zoonoses are the opposite: diseases that are transmissible from humans to animals.
Zoonoses are not unfamiliar to us. There have been multiple influenza strains that have been passed from animals to humans in the past. The most well-known and most recent of which is the virus H1N1 or “Swine Flu.” A variant of this strain of influenza, originally circulating in pigs, was transmitted to humans in 2009 and was declared a global pandemic by WHO that same year. It’s symptoms, like fever, sore throat, and cough, are similar to those of our “standard” influenza. From April to October of 2009, the CDC reported about 22 million cases of swine flu. This particular strain still circulates in humans much like the seasonal flu, and is included in the seasonal flu vaccine.
Another example of zoonoses is “avian” or “bird flu,” also known by its virus H5N1. Certain variants of this flu are highly pathogenic (or highly disease-causing) among birds, but is believed to be transmissible to humans only through contact with infected poultry. The first human infected with H5N1 was in 1997 in Hong Kong. A few hundred cases have been reported since then.
But what about the other way around? Can our pets catch the flu from us?
In 2009, when the H1N1 virus was circulating in humans, cases in domestic pets like cats, dogs, and ferrets, also emerged onto the scene. These cases are believed to have spread from infected owners to their pets and not the other way around.
H1N1-like signs of illness in pets include the following:
…and, although most diagnosed cases recovered, some resulted in death.
Faculty at the Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine are professing a particular concern regarding this “feline flu” and not only because our pets are at risk of dying from respiratory illness.
The number one concern “is that in any new movement of a virus from one species to another, the virus might mutate into a more virulent, harmful or easily transmissible form.” These mutations pose a problem because humans are often lacking immunity to the new strains.
So what should we do? Essentially, treat your pet as if he/she is a family member (as if giving him his pills, walking him, feeding him, and catering to his every other need isn’t enough). Give them space when you’re sick, and wash your hands often.
Zoonoses and the reverse are real, but with standard flu prevention steps, Fido shouldn’t have too much to worry about.