EU Plays Down Fears After Cat’s Bird Flu Death

March 1, 2006

Mar 1 2006 by icWales

A leading veterinary expert sought to play down fears amongst British pet owners today after the first case was reported in Europe of a cat dying from the deadly strain of bird flu.

Cats have not played any significant role to date in the spread of bird flu and owners should keep the case in perspective, Dr Bob McCracken, avian flu spokesman for the British Veterinary Association, said.

“I think some people do not realise that this is not a new finding, it has been known now for two or three years in south-east Asia in both domestic cats and big cats in the zoo,” he said.

“We know that there has been no significant role to date by those cats in the spread of avian flu.”

His remarks come after pet owners on the island Ruegen in the Baltic were advised to keep their cats indoors after the death of a domestic cat from the deadly H5N1 strain.

Dozens of birds have already been found with the disease on the island and it is thought that the cat had eaten an infected one.

The case has raised fears that cats could help bird flu mutate to become a flu pandemic.

It comes as national veterinary experts from across the EU will today meet for crisis talks on the spread of bird flu in Europe.

Sweden became the ninth EU member state to be affected by the outbreak when it confirmed that the virus was discovered in two wild ducks.

The European Commission has also moved to calm fears about the role of cats in spreading the disease, emphasising that the cat on the island of Ruegen had almost certainly eaten an infected dead bird.

The Commission’s aim now is to help minimise the chances of the disease gaining a hold in the commercial poultry population – but no-one holds out much hope of preventing its further spread across Europe via the migratory wild bird population.

The latest developments will be considered today by veterinary experts when the EU’s Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health meets in Brussels.

Last night, samples from the Swedish birds were sent to the EU laboratory in Weybridge, Surrey, for more tests to check whether, as experts expect, the case is another of the H5N1 strain.

A Commission spokesman said Sweden had already triggered control measures obligatory in any EU country finding bird flu.

They involve a three-kilometre (1.86-mile) “protection zone” around the outbreak and a “surveillance zone” extending a further seven kilometres.

Within the protection zone poultry must be kept indoors. Its only permitted movement is direct to the slaughterhouse.

In the wider surveillance zone, farms must carry out full-scale disinfection programmes, and the hunting of wild birds is banned.

The H5N1 strain has now been confirmed in Greece, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Slovenia, France and Slovakia. The latest discovery in Sweden, and the case of the dead cat in Germany, do not change EU-wide control measures.

“All necessary measures to combat the spread of the disease are in place, and of course we are continuing to monitor events closely,” said the Commission spokesman.

Sweden’s agriculture minister Ann-Christin Nykvist said the latest outbreak was serious “but not unexpected” – reflecting the fact that most EU member states are resigned to the prospect of a bird flu outbreak on their territory.

The H5N1 strain has killed 90 people in South-East Asia and, earlier this year, two children in Turkey.

All the victims caught the disease from direct contact with infected birds and there is still no evidence that the virus can be transmitted between humans.

Cats are the most popular choice of pet in the UK and are growing in popularity, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association. There were an estimated six million cat-owning households in the UK in 2003, with the feline pet population in the UK that year standing at 9.2 million.

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