Cats have been known to become infected with the H5N1 virus. Lab experiments show they can give it to other cats, although nobody knows whether they can transmit it to people or poultry, the researchers say in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.
Scientists know so little about H5N1 in cats that it's difficult to assess the risk they pose when infected, wrote virologist Albert Osterhaus and colleagues at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, along with Peter Roeder of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Still, "we believe that the potential role of cats should be considered in official guidelines for controlling the spread of H5N1 virus infection," they wrote.
In areas where H5N1 has been found in poultry or wild birds, cats should be kept away from infected birds or their droppings, and cats suspected of such contacts or showing symptoms of infection should be quarantined and tested, they wrote. Where possible, cats could be kept indoors to prevent contact, they wrote.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, an agency of the European Union, has also recommended keeping cats indoors if they live within about six miles of a verified H5N1 infection in birds.
Some bird flu experts said they found it premature to suggest keeping cats indoors. Scientists need to learn more about what role, if any, cats have in spreading H5N1 before making such blanket recommendations, said Dr. Arnold S. Monto of the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
Osterhaus, discussing his recommendations in a telephone interview, said that "people in the United States should realize the disease is not there, so there is no reason at this moment to be concerned at all."
By Malcolm Ritter