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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 April 2006, 00:36 GMT 01:36 UK
Cat bird flu risks 'overlooked'
Cat sitting on a cage full of poultry
Cats who eat infected chickens can contract the deadly H5N1 virus
It is vital to restrict the spread of bird flu in cats in order to protect human health, scientists warn.

Writing in Nature, scientists from Erasmus Medical Centre, Rotterdam, say the risk is being overlooked.

They say cats can contract the virus by eating infected chicken or through close contact with other cats - both new ways of mammals becoming infected.

However, animal health experts said there was a "limited risk" to humans from infected mammals with H5N1 flu.

The first report of domestic cats dying of the H5N1 virus emerged in Thailand in 2004 when 14 out of 15 cats in a household near Bangkok fell ill and died.

One had eaten a chicken carcass on a farm where there was an outbreak of the virus.

We do not want to exaggerate the risk, but if it is there then health officials must take the necessary steps
Professor Albert Osterhaus, Erasmus

Post-mortem examinations on three of the cats confirmed the presence of H5N1.

Since then, there have been deaths among cats in Indonesia, Thailand and Iraq, where H5N1 appears to be prevalent among poultry.

And the disease is common among cats in Indonesia.

A dead cat was also found in Germany in March after the H5N1 virus was found in wild birds.

There have been reports of big cats dying from the deadly H5N1 virus - including 147 tigers who died in a Thai zoo after eating infected chicken.

Dogs at risk

The Erasmus researchers say there is too little data to establish what the minimum dose needed to infect cats is or whether cats can excrete the virus even if they are uninfected.

It is also not known whether they can transmit the virus back to poultry or even on to humans.

Cats seem to be an evolutionary blind alley
Professor Peter Openshaw, Imperial College

The scientists warn that other carnivorous animals including dogs, foxes and seals are also vulnerable to infection.

Professor Albert Osterhaus, the lead author of the Nature report, told the BBC News website: "This is a concern where the H5N1 virus is endemic among poultry.

"We do not want to exaggerate the risk but if it is there then health officials must take the necessary steps."

He said these included keeping domestic cats inside, ensuring dogs were kept on the lead and quarantining any animals that showed signs of ill health.

"It's not easy for a person to be infected by a cat but where a child is in close contact with a sick animal or it has diarrhoea or is licking someone, it is a possibility."

But he stressed: "In areas where the virus is not endemic, these measures are not necessary."


Professor Peter Openshaw, head of respiratory infections at London's Imperial College, said: "At the moment, cats seem to be an evolutionary blind alley.

"They mainly get a gut or lung infection and haven't been shown to be able to transmit to man.

"However, cats might form a bridge to man since they often live in close domestic contact - in the same way that nursing a sick pet bird has been shown to do."

A spokesman for the Animal Health Service, part of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, said there were certain parts of the world where H5N1 was present where any bird-eating animal posed a "limited risk" to humans.

Precautionary measures for pet animals were needed in such places, he said.

He said the FAO, along with the World Health Organisation and the World Organisation for Animal Health, planned to carry out research to look at cat infections and the role cats l could play in the development of avian flu.

Bird flu: Are pet cats at risk?
01 Mar 06 |  Europe

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