PhotoAccording to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the months of  flu season can vary each year, but it can start as early as October in some years and stretch on until May in worst cases.

Influenza usually peaks somewhere between January and February, says the government agency, and many people have already begun their seasonal mad dash to get their flu shots before the winter season hits.

And for those unfortunate souls that won’t be able to avoid the flu, many will be extremely mindful to not pass on the potentially serious virus to any of their friends, families or co-workers. However what many pet owners may not be mindful of is passing the flu and its nasty symptoms on to their pets.

Researchers at Oregon State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, found that among the cats that were examined in the state of Ohio , around 30 percent were diagnosed with seasonal flu, and 20 percent were infected with the more serious strain of the illness H1N1.

Reverse zoonosis

The ability for an illness to pass from pet owner to pet is called “reverse zoonosis” and according to the study’s lead author Christian Loehr, most of the 80 to 100 million people in the U.S. who own a dog or cat don’t know they could be the main culprit in getting their pets sick, and this has become a huge concern in the world of animal care.

Photo“We worry a lot about zoonoses, the transmission of diseases from animal to people,” she said in a statement. “But most people don’t realize that humans can also pass diseases to animals, and this raises questions and concerns about mutations, new viral forms and evolving diseases that may potentially be zoonotic. And of course there is concern about the health of the animals,” Loehr said.

Which means if a particular virus is transferred from species to species, part of the viruses’ DNA could change for the worse and become more potent to both human and animal.

“All viruses can mutate,” said Loehr. “But the influenza virus raises special concern because it can change whole segments of its viral sequence fairly easily. In terms of hosts and mutations, who’s to say that the cat couldn’t be the new pig? We’d just like to know more about this.”

Researchers also noted although dogs are also susceptible to catching the flu from their owners, this particular type of zoonoses happens to cats at a much higher rate.

Treat pets like friends

Loehr and her colleague’s findings suggest that owners should take the same preventative measures with their pets that they do with their friends, families and co-workers, when it comes to not spreading the flu virus.

PhotoThis may mean not hugging or petting your cat while you’re sick, and washing your hands when preparing meals for your pet. Experts also advise to keep an extra close eye on your pet during flu season, especially if you are infected yourself.

However it’s important to note about the study that it wasn’t determined if the infected cats were given the flu by their owners, or received it another way, but that’s just one example’s of why more research is needed about zoonoses in the near future, says Loehr.

“Any time you have infection of a virus into a new species, it’s a concern, a black box of uncertainty,” she says. “We don’t know for sure what the implications might be, but we do think this deserves more attention.” Luckily there have been no reports of pets giving illnesses to their owners, say experts.

Experts also say  it’s imperative your cat and other pets get all of their updated shots, and if your pet does develop respiratory illness or flu symptoms, antibiotics have been known to work well, especially in those cases where the disease hasn't reached severe levels.

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