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Editors' Note: Cats and the avian flu: What should practitioners be doing?

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Jun 01, 2006

In recent months, several rapid-fire and unfortunate developments have occurred in the avian influenza situation. Last month in Indonesia, a 15-year-old boy from East Java Province died as a result of H5N1 viral infection within two weeks of exposure to dying chickens. Earlier that month in another province, a family of eight became infected with the H5N1 virus; seven of these family members have died. Of the 49 cases of human infection in Indonesia confirmed as of the first week of June, 37 have been fatal. Cases of human infection have been reported in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Pacific, and the Near East. However, although the virus continues to spread among poultry and wild birds, it usually doesn't infect people—and the spread of the virus from person-to-person is rare.

What prompted this month's update on avian flu (see Dr. Margaret Barr's article in this issue) were reports of H5N1-infected cats in Europe: one cat in Germany and three in Austria. Avian flu had previously been reported in domestic and nondomestic cats in Thailand, but with this spread to Europe veterinarians are reassessing their role in safeguarding feline patients—and their owners—should this strain of avian influenza spread to the United States.

In her article, Dr. Barr, of Western University, reports on the latest cases in cats and answers practitioners' and clients' questions about the transmission of the virus (Can cats transmit the virus to other cats or to people? People to cats?) and about how the virus could mutate. She also suggests steps we should be taking to monitor for the infection in feline patients. And she discusses the safety and efficacy of preventive measures and treatments in cats. As Dr. Barr makes clear, there is no cause for alarm, but you should know the latest on the infection in order to answer your clients' questions and to remain vigilant just in case avian flu comes to our shores.