It’s flu season in the Big Apple and this time around, it’s domestic cats who are on the forefront — with nearly 500 avian flu-infected cats quarantined in a Long Island City facility since Dec. 29.
All hands are on deck at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ temporary shelter facility, where the city’s shelter cats are being cared for and monitored. In addition to the veterinary experts, professional animal-crisis workers, and local ASPCA volunteers, other volunteers from all over the U.S. have converged in this pocket of Queens to lend a helping hand in caring for the sick felines. Inside this hot zone, workers at the facility must wear protective gear at all times. The quarantined kitties are undergoing ongoing lab tests, conducted by veterinary experts from the Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine.
The ASPCA and Maddie’s Fund are splitting the cost of the cats’ treatment. Maddie’s Fund is a national nonprofit that supports no-kill shelters and is endowed by the founder of Workday and PeopleSoft, Dave Duffield, and his wife, Cheryl. The organization works closely with the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC Animals and is named after the family’s beloved miniature schnauzer.
Thankfully, the flu-fighting felines appear to be holding up.
“Some of the cats are showing mild flu-like symptoms such as sneezing or runny nose, but the majority of them are doing well at the temporary shelter and the University of Wisconsin is conducting ongoing tests to determine cats who are cleared of the virus,” said ASPCA spokesperson Emily Schneider.
According to the New York City Health Department, this outbreak marks the first time this low pathogen strain of H7N2 has infected a population of domestic cats. To date, it’s still unclear as to how the cats became infected, but there have been reports that the virus initially made its way into the Bronx Animal Care Center (ACC), infecting a kitten named Alfred — identified as “patient zero” — who was brought to that shelter in October, and later died on November 12. Since the virus is highly contagious among cats and they are sometimes moved from one ACC shelter to another, the virus evidently spread within the ACC’s network, but the origin of how Alfred came down with H7N2 remains a mystery. In addition to Alfred, one other cat, Mimi, from the East Harlem ACC location, has died.
The ACC operates a shelter in each of the five boroughs, and is one of the largest animal welfare organizations in the country, reportedly taking in more than 35,000 animals each year. Once the virus was discovered, ACC suspended adoptions of cats and urged the public to refrain from dropping cats off at their shelters. A decontamination effort subsequently took place.
Other animals at the ACC shelters remain virus-free and the risk of cats-to-human transmission remain low. “The University of Wisconsin’s veterinary experts have tested other species at ACC,” said Schneider. “No other species have tested positive for H7N2 except for these cats and one human.” The Health Department reports that the infected person was “a veterinarian who was involved in obtaining respiratory specimens from sick cats at the Manhattan shelter. The illness was mild, short-lived, and has resolved.”
The odds of re-infection appear to be low. “This [re-infection] is highly unlikely, however, this is a virus that’s new in cats and we are still learning about it,” cautions Schneider. “In general, flu infection typically leads to immunity for most carriers, and that immunity can last for about a year.”
Experts urge those who adopted a cat from an ACC shelter between Nov. 12 and Dec. 15 to monitor them for signs of illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), symptoms to look out for include sneezing, persistent cough, lip smacking, runny nose, fever, lack of energy and decreased appetite.