Animals Get the Flu, Too

After an investigation in New Zealand in April that revealed test results were contaminated and incorrectly showed that equine influenza had reached the island nation's shores, the New Zealand Herald wrote, "The test results were crucial because an equine influenza outbreak would put at risk New Zealand's place as the only significant horse-racing nation free of equine flu."

Bark of Some Flus Worse Than Bite

Equine influenza may have reached even further a few years back, when it is believed to have spawned canine influenza. The first documented cases of dog flu, according to the medical association, occurred in racing greyhounds in Florida in January of 2004.

But fears of widespread infection to family pets were never realized.

"When that outbreak went out into the general population ... actually it was very rare for us to see dogs get very ill with influenza," said Sarah Sheafor, medical director of SouthPaws Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Center in Fairfax, Va.

While her clinic treats a number of dogs with cancer, Sheafor notes that even the canines with weakened immune systems didn't come down with the virus.

"Everyone was worried just because it was a new influenza and we had never really seen influenza in dogs before," she said. "Since that summer, I would have to say we've seen fewer than three or four where we even worried about it."

Spread of Disease: Fear of Virus from Animal and Human

"There was a lot more worry and a lot more flash in the pan than it needed," Sheafor said.

The same could be said for swine flu, which affects pigs.

As Dr. Jeffrey Greene, a professor of clinical medicine at NYU, notes in his book "The Bird Flu Pandemic: Can It Happen? Will It Happen?" a widespread panic occurred in 1976 when a soldier at Fort Dix, N.J., died of the disease. Overall five recruits were infected.

Ultimately, Greene noted, 40 million people were vaccinated against a pandemic that never came about.

But the medical association notes that pigs present a unique opportunity for flu viruses. Avian, swine and even human influenza can bind to the cell receptors in a pig, which allows the strains to mix together and form new viruses.

While pigs and birds may have passed their infections to humans, for ferrets the transfer goes in the other direction. They can contract human flu.

"Ferrets can get a few different respiratory elements from other species," Sheafor said.

Unlike other pet owners, ferret owners may need to take extra precautions when they are sick.

"People with flu who might be shedding the influenza virus should wear gloves and face masks when handling ferrets. There is no protective vaccine available for ferrets," Connell said.

While stories of animal flus come up from time to time, few of the strains are a hazard to humans, and some haven't even presented a major risk to the animals.

"It's not a disease that we worry about a great deal in dogs," Sheafor said, explaining that while a kennel with many dogs packed in might pose a problem, the home environment doesn't tend to do so.

"Dogs with the flu sure look a lot like people," she said, "but we didn't see a big epidemic."

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