A dog in suburban New York City is the first in the nation confirmed to be carrying the same strain of swine flu that is infecting humans, experts told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
The 13-year-old mixed breed male, which is recovering, apparently caught the virus from his owner. But Michael San Filippo, a spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association, said there's no evidence that the flu strain can be transmitted from a pet to a person.
"In theory it could happen, but so far it's really looking like a dead end in pets," he said.
Dr. Anne Schuchat of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that animals can carry and spread flu viruses, but such cases are rare and people should not be afraid to enjoy their pets.
The dog, suffering breathing problems, was taken to the Katonah Bedford Veterinary Center in Bedford Hills, N.Y., on Dec. 13.
The medical director there, David Sachs, said he had the dog tested for swine flu because its owner previously had the virus. The practice would not identify the owner or give the dog's name.
The dog came in for a checkup Tuesday and is "getting back to his old self" but has not fully recovered, said veterinarian Julie Steffens.
The announcement of a dog with swine flu comes a little more than a month after an unidentified male cat in Iowa was believed to be the first feline in the nation diagnosed with the H1N1 virus. In that case, a 13-year-old, mixed-breed cat showed the symptoms of lethargy, sneezing and coughing typical to sick cats.
The cat was brought to Lloyd Veterinary Medical Center at Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, where on Nov. 4 it was confirmed it had the H1N1 virus.
Pets Can Get Swine Flu, Too
In that case as well, veterinarians refused to release his identity and furthermore 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 the cat became ill.
Officials at the Iowa Department of Public Health released the cat's diagnosis. "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 cases of pet infection come as the CDC says swine flu is waning among humans. It said infections were widespread in 11 states, down from 48 in late October.
Dr. Carolyn Bridges, associate director of Science in Influenza at the CDC in Atlanta, said flu viruses tend to stick to one species or another, but the cases of pet infection showed the ability of the flu to cross species.
In light of the cases, some veterinarians worried about the well-being of other pets across the nation.
"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, at the time that the cat was diagnosed. "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 pet owners might abandon their animals at the first sign of a sniffle.
Pet Panic? Vets Say Don't Fear Dogs, Cats
"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 or dog.
"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 dogs and 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.
Although ferret owners are experienced in dealing with human-to-ferret flu, dog and 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."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.