Cat in Iowa Catches Swine Flu

cat/ABC News
A pet cat has caught the H1N1 (swine flu) virus, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health. This is the first instance of a pet cat contracting the new flu virus.

An unidentified male cat in Iowa is believed to be the first in the nation diagnosed with the H1N1 virus, sparking concerns that pets may transmit the swine flu or that frightened pet owners may abandon their cats in droves.

The 13-year-old, mixed-breed cat showed the symptoms of lethargy, sneezing and coughing typical to sick cats. He was brought last week to Lloyd Veterinary Medical Center at Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, where it was confirmed he had the H1N1 virus.

Veterinarians refused to release his identity and would not divulge the coat color or any other identifying characteristics to protect client-veterinarian privacy. One veterinarian who treated the cat, Brett Sponseller, said two people in the cat's Iowa home had flu-like symptoms before he became ill.

VIDEO: Dr. Richard Besser discusses the first documented case of H1N1 in a cat.Play

Officials at the Iowa Department of Public Health released the unnamed cat's diagnosis Wednesday.

"In this particular instance, the cat was treated for its dehydration with fluid therapy and also treated with antibiotics upon the results of testing," said Albert Jergens, professor of internal medicine at Iowa State University.

"The cat has been on therapy now for approximately seven days," he said. "I think the prognosis on this cat for a full recovery is excellent."

This is the first known transmission of influenza from a person to a cat, an expert at the Centers for Disease and Control told ABC News senior medical editor Dr. Richard Besser.

The expert, Dr. Carolyn Bridges, who is the associate director of Science in Influenza at the CDC in Atlanta, said flu viruses tend to stick to one species or another but the case of the Iowa cat shows the ability of the flu to cross species.

In light of the news, some veterinarians are worried about the well-being of other cats across the nation; whether the cats contract the H1N1 virus.

"This could be a thing that just fizzles out but it also has the potential for huge impact," said Tony Johnson, a clinical assistant professor at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine. "We have these little fuzzy things living in our house that could be vectors for nasty diseases."

Johnson isn't so worried that cats will spread the flu to humans: "Most influenza viruses are not going to kill you," he said.

Rather, he worries cat owners might abandon their animals at the first sign of a sniffle.

"I think that's what's going to wig people out," Johnson said. "I don't want to see the shelters filled with cats and dogs tomorrow."

Veterinarians have long heard of the flu jumping from animals to humans, and some cases of pets to humans. But it's uncommon for a flu virus to jump from a human to a cat.

Has Human to Pet Transfer Happened With Other Flu Viruses?

"The H1N1 virus obviously has the potential to jump from animals to humans -- most people believe that that's where it originated -- and it's already been proven to make the jump from humans to animals," said Dr. Steven L. Rowell, director of the Foster Hospital for Small Animals at Tufts University.

But ferrets and pigs, rather than cats, seem to be the animals most at risk for catching a human flu. The new H1N1 strain is no exception to that trend.

The United States Department of Agriculture has documented one case of a ferret in Oregon contracting the flu from an infected owner and several pigs contracting the H1N1 virus from humans.

"This is the first case we've heard of in cats, and I'm curious to know how the case presented itself," Rowell said.

"The good news is that it appears that the cat and the family members have recovered just fine."

Although ferret owners are experienced in dealing with human-to-ferret flu, cat owners may not be and veterinarians have some specific recommendations.

What Should People Do If Their Animal Seems Sick?

If an owner is worried that their cat or dog has the swine flu, veterinarians recommend that owners not rush to the local vet's office demanding an H1N1 test.

"If people are going to their vet with their cat or dog, there's not, to my knowledge, an easily accessible way for vets to test them for H1N1," Johnson said.

To protect the household from pet flu infections, veterinarians recommend the same precautions families should take when a person falls ill.

"Wash your hands before and after touching your pet, and avoid sneezing on your animal," Rowell said. "And if you suspect your pet has the flu, do not treat him or her with drugs yourself, bring them in to your veterinarian. Treating them with over-the-counter flu medicines may do much more harm than good."