Cats can become infected with HPAI H5N1 when they eat wild birds or domestic poultry with HPAI H5N1 avian influenza. For that reason, unusual mortality in cats should raise the suspicion of H5N1 in areas where birds are infected with the HPAI H5N1 virus.
Infected cats develop pneumonia and in some cases, meningitis or encephalitis (inflammation in the brain). Clinical signs include coughing, runny nose / watery eyes, difficulty breathing, sometimes vomiting and diarrhea, and rarely, sudden behavior changes. These cats then spread the infection to other cats and susceptible pets such as ferrets or hamsters. (Dogs can also become infected, presumably from eating an infected bird, but this is rare. To date, there have been no reported cases of a cat infected with HPAI H5N1 passing the infection to a human or a dog.)
The following recommendations will minimize the likelihood of a cat (or their owner) becoming infected with HPAI H5N1:
- Keep vaccinations up-to-date on all cats, including barn cats
- Limit contact with outdoor cats until we know more about H5N1
- Cook poultry products before feeding to pets (e.g. chicken and rice diet)
- Do not pick up stray cats and take them home