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Rare bird flu strain is spreading among cats, raising red flags for humans also

NEW YORK — It’s a most unusual health emergency that has public health advocates sending out a warning to pet owners and non-pet owners alike.

For the first time ever, cats have contracted a strain of bird flu. It’s rarely transmitted to humans, but still, New York City authorities are taking this situation very seriously.

“Any time a flu strain jumps from one type of animal, a bird to another, a mammal,” said Deputy Health Commissioner Jay Varma, M.D., “we get concerned about its potential threat to the health of humans.”

At the Animal Care Center, or ACC, a city-controlled animal shelter in East Harlem, a rare strain of bird flu has been discovered among its cats.

“A very elderly cat entered the shelter, got pneumonia and died,” said Dr. Varma in an interview. He said that animal shelter staff, in conjunction with local university veterinarians “diagnosed the flu, a rare form of flu, and noticed it was spreading.”

This particular strain of influenza, called H7N2, has been transmitted to humans in two known cases, one from 2002 and the other from 2003. However, Varma said, “those infections were not related to cats” and both patients survived.

As for cats themselves, the fact of a bird flu strain circulating among some of them does not reduce the need for rescue and care for local cats generally. “The cats that I rescued in TriBeCa are living under a loading dock,” said Jennifer Hunt, a local cat rescuer and animal advocate. “[They have] shelter, but it’s very cold.”

“It’s still important to rescue and adopt cats and kittens,” Hunt said, “but to take precautions.”

The situation at the ACC has led the city to issue an alert to all shelters citywide, as well as to veterinary offices and other animal care centers here. PIX11 News has also learned that animal care providers in Connecticut and Pennsylvania who have in the past received animals that have come from the ACC have been alerted to the potential problem.

Still, the need for trapping, then neutering and either releasing cats or finding them homes is persistent, despite this unusual strain of avian flu. So advocates like Hunt are adhering to their professed mission, albeit with a greater sense of caution.

“I’m going to continue to rescue cats,” Hunt told PIX11 News. She still has an active GoFundMe page that she says helps pay for her basic rescue efforts, that is needed all the more in the wake of the flu outbreak.

The city’s shelters are not releasing any cats for adoption and the city is asking that no cats be brought in, either, if at all possible.

“I don’t want any cat to get sick,” said Hunt, adding that with proper precautions, any cat in need, “I’ll rescue.”