Ask the Veterinarian

Stock photo

By Matthew Kearns, DVM

I thought it a good time to recycle an article that is appropriate for this time of year. Here are a few tips to make sure this and every Halloween is a safe and happy one.

Candy and chocolate poisoning

Chocolate is dangerous for two reasons. The first is that it contains two chemicals — caffeine and theobromine, which are stimulants in the methylxanthine class. White chocolate contains almost none of these compounds and baking chocolate has the highest concentrations. 

Symptoms begin within 6 to 12 hours after ingestion and include panting, hyperactivity, increased thirst and urination. High concentrations lead to irregular heart rhythms, seizures, coma and death. There are specific toxic levels for all pets but, just like people, some dogs and cats can be very sensitive to chocolate and show signs of poisoning from much lesser amounts.  

Chocolate is also very high in sugar and fat. Minimally this could cause some mild diarrhea, but I have personally seen a few cases of serious gastroenteritis, pancreatitis and liver disease from ingestion of large amounts of chocolate and other candy.

Unfortunately, dogs and cats (especially young ones) will be more interested in eating their costume than wearing it. I have both experienced, as well as heard from colleagues, stories of pulling out portions of a witch’s nose, small scarecrow teddy bears, etc. The wrappers from candy can sometimes get wadded up in the stomach or small intestines and either cause intense pain or unavoidable (and expensive) surgery. Corn cobs used as decorations should also be out of reach of curious (and hungry pets). As much as you want the house to look festival, make sure to keep all holiday items out of reach of pets. 

Fears and phobias

Talk to your veterinarian if your pet is afraid of loud noises or large numbers of people coming to the door. Many times a calming supplement or mild tranquilizer sedative is all that is needed to get through Halloween, but always have your pet examined by the veterinarian (especially older pets) before administering these medications. Tranquilizers will cause a drop in blood pressure, which in healthy pets is not a problem but in older or diseased pets can be dangerous (even life-threatening in some cases).  

Malicious injuries

Be aware (especially with cats that go outside) that they are in for the night early. Unfortunately, we do see malicious acts toward animals increase on this particular holiday.  

I hope this information is helpful in providing a safe Halloween environment for our pets.  

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.

The origins of the advantages of grain-free diets seem to be driven by the pet food industry itself. Stock photo

By Matthew Kearns, DVM

I recently had a pet owner come in and ask me if grain-free diets were dangerous. I knew there were risks of bacterial and parasitic contamination in raw diets but had not heard anything about grain-free diets. Time to investigate.  

The origins of the advantages of grain-free diets seem to be driven by the pet food industry itself. There are advantages to using other vegetables (peas, potatoes, chick peas, etc.) as a carbohydrate source if your pet has a documented case of allergies to grains. 

However, the complex carbohydrates and fiber in grains (corn, rice, wheat, barley, etc.) are much better nutritionally and overall digestive health. More recently a new problem has arisen from grain-free diets: HEART DISEASE!!!!

I need to start with a disclaimer that there is no current evidence to link grain-free diets and heart disease but here’s what we know so far: New studies have found that some dogs on grain-free diets are more at risk for a heart condition called dilatory cardiomyopathy (DCM). 

DCM is a heart condition where the heart muscle becomes thin and the heart dilates, or the chambers of the heart expand. Unfortunately, as the heart dilates, the heart becomes an inefficient pump and the patient goes into heart failure. The lung and abdomen then fill with fluid, making it impossible to breathe and, without treatment, is fatal. Even with treatment the patient’s life span is reduced dramatically. Why would grain-free diets cause this? The link seems to be taurine.

A study led by Dr. Joshua Stern (a veterinary cardiologist at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine) found a higher number of DCM in golden retrievers. Stern also discovered that many of these patients were on a grain-free diet and had abnormally low taurine levels. 

Taurine is an amino acid, or building block of protein, that is essential for normal heart function. It is found in higher concentrations in muscle of animals including red meats, poultry and seafood. Plants contain very little to no taurine. The lowest concentrations of taurine are found in legumes (peas, chick peas), potatoes and other plants. Some dog foods are supplemented with taurine and some are not.

What to do right now? If your dog is healthy and not showing any symptoms of heart disease (coughing, exercise intolerance, difficulty breathing), you can do a few things: (1) check the taurine content on your particular diet and, if not supplemented, change to a diet that is supplemented, (2) change to a diet supplemented with taurine without checking, or (3) have your dog’s taurine levels tested through your veterinarian’s office and only change the diet or supplement if the levels are low.

Research is ongoing and I will update everyone as soon as I have more information.  

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.

By Matthew Kearns, DVM

This time of year (actually throughout the summer and fall) we have an uptick in ear infections. To call every dog or cat that comes in with itchy ears an ear infection is misleading. Otitis externa means “inflammation” (not infection) of the external ear canal. The bacteria and yeast we treat with medications fall into the category of “normal flora,” or organisms found in low numbers in healthy ear canals. 

Usually some other trigger is involved and the normal flora overgrow. Parasitic infections (ear mites), pets that swim a lot/get water in their ears, or ear trauma (plucking hair, etc.) are triggers for acute, or nonrecurring problems that are easy to treat. 

Chronic, recurrent infections are almost always secondary to allergies. I actually consulted with a veterinary dermatologist and she estimated that between 80 and 90 percent of all recurrent otitis externa in dogs is related to allergies.    

The anatomy of the ear plays a role in predisposing patients to ear infections. The normal canine and feline external ear canal have and “L” shape, with both a vertical and horizontal component to it leading to a greater distance from the opening of the ear canal to the ear drum. Additionally, clearing the healthy ear canal occurs through a slow process called migration. 

The ear canal contains epithelial cells (those similar to skin), ceruminous cells and apocrine cells (cells that produce earwax). Epithelial cells will turn over, or be replaced every few days and, along with a small amount of earwax, migrate toward the entrance of the canal. Once at the entrance a good shake of the head sends it out to the world. If the lining of the ear canal becomes inflamed, it narrows due to swelling (most likely due to some sort of food or environmental/seasonal allergy) and excessive ear wax is produced. This combination not only overwhelms the ear’s ability to clear the wax, it also leads to a warm, dark and moist environment and allows the normal bacteria and yeast to go crazy.

Certain breeds such as Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, cocker spaniels, shar-peis and mixed breeds of this type have predisposing factors such as hair in the ears, floppy ears, narrow ear canals or a combination. 

Now, this does not mean that every member of these breeds is guaranteed to have chronic ear infections, rather it means that if you have a member of these breeds and they have even low-grade allergies, the ears can spiral out of control quickly. We are also starting to encounter antibiotic strains of bacteria (such as Staphylococcus) in chronic recurrent otitis in veterinary medicine.  

The main point of all of this is if your pet has chronic, recurrent ear infections, it is important to look for an underlying allergy and treat the allergy. Sometimes it can be a veterinary-approved prescription diet or sometimes the newer, safer allergy medications. Remember to discuss this with your veterinarian.

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.

While these tumors develop most commonly in mixed-breed dogs, boxers, Boston terriers, Labrador retrievers, schnauzers and beagles are at a higher risk. Stock photo

By Matthew Kearns, DVM

Dr. Matthew Kearns

Cutaneous mast cell tumors are the most common skin tumor in dogs (estimated to be at least 20 percent of all skin tumors in dogs), and one of the most commonly encountered tumors in veterinary medicine. Mast cell tumors can be quite aggressive and cause multiple symptoms (all bad). Where do they come from? What do they do? How do we treat them?

Cutaneous mast cell tumors are malignant skin tumors made up of mast cells, cells normally found in tissues throughout the body. Mast cells contain primarily histamine, a vasoactive protein (a chemical that affects the diameter and tone of blood vessels) and are responsible for allergic reactions. 

Small amounts of histamine cause swelling, itching and redness of the skin. Large amounts of histamine trigger constriction of the airway, dilation of the vessels and an unsafe drop in blood pressure (anaphylaxis). 

Mast cell tumors develop most commonly in mixed-breed dogs. However, boxers, Boston terriers, Labrador retrievers, schnauzers and beagles are pure breeds that are at higher risk. If you have one of these breeds and you see a lump on your dog’s skin, bring it to your veterinarian’s attention as soon as possible.   

Diagnosis of cutaneous mast cell tumors is relatively straightforward and minimally invasive with a procedure called a fine needle aspirate and cytology. This involves obtaining a sample of cells with a needle attached to an empty syringe and sending the sample to a laboratory for evaluation by a veterinary pathologist. Once diagnosed, the best treatment is surgical removal, and the surgery does have to be somewhat aggressive by requiring wide margins. 

“Wide margins” refers to taking a certain amount of healthy tissue around and below the tumor, as well as the tumor itself. This poses the challenge of closing the “hole” you leave behind. 

Why do we take such large and aggressive margins? Mast cell tumors are graded as one, two or three based on aggressiveness, and it is impossible to tell from a fine needle aspiration anything beyond the diagnosis of mast cell tumor. Previous studies have stated that certain margins, both width and depth, help ensure you get all of the tumor the first time.

What do we do for patients that may be too old or debilitated for anesthesia/surgery, or the location of the tumor makes it impossible to remove fully with surgery? There are options such as chemotherapy, radiation and even injections directly into the tumor. All these alternative protocols help, and a small percentage actually completely resolve, or remove the tumor.

If you see a lump pop up on your dog’s skin (especially if you notice it pops up quickly), bring it to your veterinarian’s attention immediately.  

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.

July 4th can be a very stressful time for our pets. Stock photo

By Matthew Kearns, DVM

I commonly get this question around this time of year, “What can I give my pet (usually my dog) for all the fireworks before, during and after July 4th?” One point I tell pet owners to keep in mind is fear of loud noises is a natural, instinctive behavior in dogs and cats, telling them to seek shelter temporarily, alerting them to potential predators in the area, etc. However, I agree that when a pet is oversensitive to this noise stimulus to the point where they cower, shake, pace, urinate/defecate in the house, destroy furniture or even try to climb on your lap that becomes a big problem.     

Supplements: Alpha-casozepine, L-theanine (green tea extract) and aromatherapy (lavender, chamomile) are the safest and also have the widest range of efficacy in my opinion. I have had feedback from owners that report these supplements or homeopathic remedies are either “just what the doctor ordered” or are now of the opinion that I am more “snake-oil salesman” than veterinarian. My advice is it’s great to try these but have a backup plan.

Over-the-Counter Medications: The only over-the-counter medication that has been evaluated for sedation is diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Diphenhydramine can cause drowsiness, and I have heard a few owners tell me it is enough; but I have found that it is more effective for dogs that suffer from motion sickness during travel than sedating a dog climbing the walls from a noise phobia. My advice is the same. Have a backup plan.

Antidepressants and SSRIs: These medications can be quite effective; the mainstay of antidepressants in veterinary medicine is a tricyclic antidepressant (TCA) called clomipramine (Clomicalm). The mainstay of selected serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) is fluoxetine (Prozac). The problem is these medications can take a minimum of three weeks and sometimes up to 8 weeks to get to steady therapeutic levels. That means starting before Memorial Day, and my experience has been that pet owners (myself included) do not think that far ahead.

Benzodiazepines: The mainstay of benzodiazepines in veterinary medicine is alprazolam (Xanax). This medication has been studied extensively for all sorts of anxiety and phobias in dogs. It is helpful, but I have to admit that I have been less than impressed with the results with the use of benzodiazepines by themselves. These medications are designed to be used in conjunction with a TCA or SSRI where the TCA/SSRI is a maintenance medication and the benzodiazepine is situational. The problem is what is described above: It takes one to two months of steady use of the TCA or SSRI for the addition of a benzodiazepine to be effective.

Phenothiazine: Phenothiazines are tranquilizers, and the most widely used phenothiazine tranquilizer in veterinary medicine is acepromazine. Using acepromazine to sedate a dog is wonderful if one is looking to keep them still (and not destroy the house), but it does not address phobias or anxiety. I do prescribe it routinely around the 4th of July because it works so well in a “real time” basis, but I do not recommend it as a long-term medication. 

Dexmedetomidine: This medication is the newest kid on the block. Initially used for sedation prior to procedures, dexmedetomidine (Sileo) is now used to treat anxiety on a short-term basis similar to acepromazine.  

There are several choices for sedating our dogs for noise phobias this July 4th. Please check with your veterinarian to determine which is both effective and safe for your dog. Have a happy and safe 4th of July.  

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.

Never leave a pet alone in a parked car for any amount of time. Stock photo

By Matthew Kearns, DVM

Here we are, getting ready for another great summer on Long Island. This article will address preventative care and safety issues for the best summer ever! 

Fleas and ticks are more and more prevalent every year. Luckily, there are plenty of flea and tick preventatives available including topical medications, collars and oral medications. Some are administered monthly and some last for several months.  Preventing fleas will help with skin irritations and allergies. It is best to speak with your veterinarian to discuss which option is best for you. This is based on efficacy (especially when fighting the deer tick), safety, cost and which works best for your pet.  

Vaccines are an integral part of maintaining any pet’s health. It is important to make sure your pet is updated on all their vaccines if you want to walk around, visit dog parks, etc. Remember, vaccines are also required by law in Suffolk County at all boarding facilities. Certain groomeries/doggie day care facilities require them as part of their policy. Be sure to check before you arrive or you may be postponing your trip to go to the vet’s office to update vaccines.

Remember to keep ol’ Fluffy and Fido hydrated with cool water throughout the day, and if it is very hot or humid, limit their outside time. Early symptoms of overheating include excessive panting, difficulty breathing, drooling and weakness. If the overheating is not corrected, it will lead to vomiting, bloody diarrhea, stupor, collapse, seizures and possibly death. 

Never leave a pet alone in a parked car for any amount of time. A car can reach in excess of 20 degrees from the outside temperature within 20 minutes and the consequences can be deadly.

We are surrounded by the best beaches anywhere! However, be aware of glass, sharp rocks, debris, etc. A good piece of advice is to think of your pet like a 2-year-old: Everything is interesting, and everything seems to go in their mouths. This can lead to inadvertent obstructions. 

Signs of a blockage include vomiting, lack of appetite and lethargy. An X-ray will usually confirm the diagnosis. Many times IV fluids and medications to control nausea allow the obstruction to pass on its own. Sometimes, surgery is necessary. If any of the symptoms mentioned are seen, better to see your veterinarian as soon as possible. 

When one thinks of summer, delicious barbecue food is the first thing that comes to mind, but just remember many of these foods can be very dangerous to your pet. Keep any kind of bones and/or raw meats (chicken, meat, fish) out of the reach of your pets. Also, make sure your pets stay away from grills, grease and hot surfaces. Avoid leaving around alcohol, raisins, grapes, nuts, chocolate, onions and any artificial sweeteners.

Lastly, remember to be aware of pets around fireworks. It’s best to keep your pet inside or at home if fireworks are going to be part of your summer celebrations to avoid them getting injured or burned. If your pet (usually dogs) suffers from noise phobias, remember to talk to your veterinarian as early as possible. Many anti-anxiety medications take three to four weeks to reach therapeutic levels. I hope everyone has a fun and safe summer!

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.

If it wasn’t for the side effects, corticosteroids would be a magic bullet. Stock photo
Getting to the source of the itch

By Matthew Kearns, DVM

My last column introduced the seasonal allergies that our pets can suffer from, also known as atopic dermatitis. This second part of the two-part article focuses more on the treatment of atopic dermatitis. The treatments we will discuss only focus on systemic medications. It does not include supplements, topical creams/powders/sprays, medicated shampoos/conditioners, etc. I’ll make sure to cover that in the future. 

Now, if we remember from the first part of the article, atopy is defined as, “a genetic predisposition to develop a sensitivity to allergens (proteins in the environment).” The body develops antibodies against these allergens (primarily IgE) and, once a threshold is reached, the IgE antibodies trigger signals to certain white blood cells called basophils and mast cells to release inflammatory chemicals into the system (primarily histamine). This release of histamine triggers all the itch and secondary skin and ear infections that frustrate both pet owners and veterinarians. What is out there to help with the problem?

Antihistamines

Antihistamines block the histamine receptors on nerves, vessels, muscle cells and the lining of stomach and small intestine. They are readily available without a prescription and safe so they can be an excellent first choice. Unfortunately, antihistamines do not block the release of histamine from basophils and mast cells but rather block the receptors on the cells of the organs they affect.  

Now, you can’t block every receptor with medication so it very much depends how severely the individual pet responds to an atopic, or allergic, reaction. Pets with mild allergies will do well with antihistamines. However, pets with more severe forms of allergies either do not respond well or respond temporarily to antihistamines and eventually need a stronger medication.

 Corticosteroids 

Corticosteroids, glucocorticoids, or “steroids,” as they are sometimes referred to, are all cortisone derivatives. Systemic cortisone medications are prescription only. However, corticosteroids are inexpensive and very effective at treating atopic diseases. They block the production of all cytokines (mediators of inflammation) and, if it wasn’t for the side effects, would be a magic bullet. Short-term use is relatively safe and very beneficial. Side effects include drinking/urinating more, eating more and panting. 

However, long-term side effects include gastrointestinal upset/possible ulcers, a suppressed immune system, diabetes mellitus, liver damage, pancreatitis, thromboemboli (blood clots), increased risk of urinary and other types of infections, lethargy and, sometimes, aggression. 

We, as veterinarians, try to transition patients with chronic, recurrent skin and ear problems to other, safer long-term medications.

Immunomodulators 

These prescription medications are more effective than antihistamines and safer to use long term than corticosteroids. Medications like Atopica (cyclosporine) and Apoquel (oclacitinib) block a specific receptor and prevent specific cytokines associated with the allergic itch. These are newer medications with minimal side effects and safe to use long term but are more expensive than antihistamines or corticosteroids.

Biologic therapy 

This is the newest kid on the block. Biologic therapy uses the body’s immune system to target cytokines, or chemicals that induce inflammation. Cytopoint (lokivetmab) is a once monthly injection that induces your dog’s immune system to produce antibodies against a specific class of cytokines called interleukins. Interleukins have been linked to the itch in allergic or atopic dermatitis.

Multiple factors play into what medication we choose: severity, age of pet, pre-existing disease and cost of medication. I hope pet owners will start the discussion with their own vet as to which medication is best for their pet.  

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.

Allergens are classified into four major categories in veterinary medicine: pollens, mold spores, dander and dust mites. Stock photo
Getting to the source of the itch

By Matthew Kearns, DVM

I expect at some point there will no longer be any snow on the ground. Once that happens I will truly suffer with burning eyes, runny nose, sore throat and an intermittent cough. Ugh, my wretched seasonal allergies are back!! 

Well, just like us, pets can also suffer from seasonal allergies. Pets can suffer from all of the signs I mentioned above but, most commonly, they suffer from itchy feet, recurrent ear infections and rashes all over the body. 

This phenomenon of seasonal allergies is known as atopy, or atopic dermatitis. Dermatitis stands for “inflammation of the skin,” or a rash. Atopy is defined as “a genetic predisposition to develop allergies to allergens” (proteins in the environment). Atopy and atopic dermatitis hiccup in the immune system. 

The immune system produces immunoglobulins (Ig), or antibodies, to protect us against infections and parasites. There are five major classes of immunoglobulins: IgA, IgD, IgE, IgG and IgM. These antibodies work with white blood cells to trigger the release of cytokines. Cytokines are chemicals that fight against/kill bacteria, viruses, fungal infections, parasites and even cancer cells. The antibody IgE is the antibody associated with allergies. IgE has a beneficial effect by protecting against certain parasites, particularly gut parasites. 

Unfortunately, these same IgE antibodies recognize allergens, or proteins associated with allergies, the same as parasites. This fools the immune system into producing more IgE antibodies that trigger a certain white blood cell called basophils into releasing large amounts of cytokines (particularly histamine) into the system. This release of histamine causes a systemic reaction that triggers inflammation of the skin all over the body. 

Allergens are classified into four major categories in veterinary medicine: pollens, mold spores, dander and dust mites. Each of these allergens is going to be in higher concentrations at different times of the year. Pollens are high when grasses, weeds, flowers and trees bloom, which is late spring/early summer through late fall. Mold spores are from decaying plant material and occur from late fall/early winter and late winter/early spring. Dander and dust mites are around in the cold winter with low humidity.  

We mentioned at the beginning of the article that pets can suffer from all the same symptoms of hay fever, but it is less common than skin rashes and ear infections. Why is that? Those same allergens that are in the air also land on the ground, and research has found pets that suffer from atopic dermatitis are triggered by percutaneous (through the skin) absorption. 

These pets have defects in the lining of their skin so the allergens are literally absorbed through their feet and other areas where the skin is exposed (stomach, face). Many times if we see pets that have a severe pododermatitis (inflammation and infection of the skin on the feet) that is a clue that atopy or a seasonal allergy is afoot (no pun intended). Once we diagnosis atopic dermatitis we next need to treat it. We will discuss how to treat this condition in my next article.

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.

Symptoms of a concussion can be as subtle as mild lethargy to as severe as coma.

By Matthew Kearns, DVM

There is so much attention recently on the effect of concussions on the human brain. Starting with the studies run through the NFL, we parents are now looking at the risks and long-term effects of concussions on children that play contact sports. My son Matty is only in the ninth grade and before he can participate in lacrosse this spring, he has to take a test that evaluates his brain function. If, during the season, he sustains a head injury, he will retake the test to see if he did receive any brain injuries that may require he sit out for a while.

We don’t have specific tests for dogs or cats, but there are ways to evaluate your pet for a possible brain injury. Starting the process of evaluating our pets for concussions requires we, as owners, know what the most common causes of brain trauma and injuries are. These include brain injuries from vehicular accidents and all sorts of blunt trauma to the head like getting hit with a baseball or baseball bat/blunt instrument, a fall from a porch or deck, getting kicked by an animal or running into something like a tree or wall. Smaller dogs can get these injuries falling from their owners arms, rough housing with larger dogs or being attacked by larger dogs (where the smaller dog is picked up and shaken). 

The initial injury comes from a decrease in the blood flow to the brain secondary to brain edema (swelling) or bleeding. Unfortunately, this increase in pressure leads to a secondary increase in arterial blood flow/pressure to the brain and decreased venous blood drainage. This combination of initial swelling after trauma and the body’s response to the increased pressure is what leads to cell death and long-term effects. 

Symptoms can be as subtle as mild lethargy to as severe as coma. More subtle symptoms are squinting, reluctance to move, decreased appetite and sleeping more. Your veterinarian may be able to pick up additional symptoms related to pupil size, reactions to stimuli (light, sound), systemic blood pressure, heart rate and temperature.

Depending on the severity of the symptoms, either your veterinarian or an emergency veterinarian can also give you an idea of prognosis of recovery and possible long-term complications.

Head injuries need to be seen immediately. If your pet is very lethargic or comatose, make sure to be careful moving your pet. Also try to keep your pet’s head above the rest of its body to improve drainage. More severe cases of head trauma require hospitalization, intravenous fluid therapy, supplemental oxygen and medications to regulate blood pressure and reduce intracranial edema.

In conclusion, if a head injury occurs, please monitor your pet closely or, better yet, have it evaluated by your veterinarian ASAP.

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.

Stock photo

By Matthew Kearns, DVM

I recently caught a cold from my son, Matty, and it really knocked me on my butt. Fever followed by a terrible cough that has lasted at least two weeks. The ironic part  of the story is that about a week and a half into my cold, each one of my three cats developed a cough and started sneezing. My cats do not go outside and I wondered if I could give a cold to my cats.

After some investigation I couldn’t believe what I found. There are documented cases of cats with upper respiratory syndromes, and these same cats tested positive for the human H1N1 influenza virus.

I graduated veterinary school about 20 years ago, and all of the focus was on zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans and not the other way around) or diseases that could affect herd health (say a cow that develops a respiratory disease that is either fatal or affects productivity). Through the years since I graduated, there have been smaller studies evaluating what infections we humans can give our pets. Now, there is definitive evidence that the human H1N1 influenza virus can be passed to cats. 

Sneezing, the sniffles, lethargy and coughing may be signs that your cat has the flu. Stock photo

The human-to-cat transmission of the flu is not the first time that examples of cross-species contamination has taken place. I also found examples of experimental infection of pigs with the H1N2 human influenza virus. Not only did these pigs show symptoms of the flu about four days after infection, but they also passed the disease along to uninfected pigs. More recently, the canine influenza virus outbreaks that keep making the news appear to be a mutation of an H3N8 equine influenza virus. What in the name of Sam Hill is going on?

It seems that the problem with these influenza viruses is their ability to mutate, or change their genetic sequencing. One of the better examples recently (2009) was a human outbreak in the United States where the influenza virus responsible included genetic material from North American swine influenza, North American avian influenza, human influenza and a swine influenza typically found in Asia. That means this particular strain of flu virus was able to incorporate genetic material from three different species. UGH!!!!!

The most important question is this: How do we prevent this infection in our feline family members? The unfortunate dilemma with this constant mutation is there is no effective influenza virus vaccine for cats at this time. Therefore, it is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid contact with your cat until at least the fever breaks. I can tell you from personal experience this is easier said than done.

My cats sleep with me, follow me around and (they’re a bit naughty) even jump on the kitchen table to see what I’m eating. The good news is that if your cat does break out with symptoms it is restricted to an upper respiratory infection.

Symptoms include lethargy, coughing, sneezing and a purulent (snotty green) discharge. If you do see a greenish discharge from the eyes or nose, antibiotics may be indicated due to a secondary bacterial infection. A much lower percentage of cats progress to a lower respiratory infection (even pneumonia). This can be quite serious and possibly fatal because it is viral and antibiotics are ineffective unless there is a secondary bacterial component.

Until a feline influenza vaccine is developed, my advice is that when you break out with the flu, good general hygiene is best even at home. If you cough or sneeze, cough or sneeze into your arm rather than cover you mouth with your hands. Make sure to regularly wash your hands or carry around the waterless hand sanitizer.

Lastly, if your cat develops signs, contact your veterinarian for advice or possibly an appointment. Good luck my fellow pet lovers.

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.

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