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Bird flu kills dozens of cats in Poland. What’s happening?



Bird flu has killed dozens of cats in Poland, the World Health Organization (WHO) says — the first report of a high number of infected cats over a wide area within a country.

The WHO said Monday it was notified by Polish authorities on June 27 of “unusual deaths in cats across the country.” The international health body began investigating and as of July 11, it said 29 of 47 samples were found to be positive for bird flu, also known as avian flu.

Since the end of 2021, an unprecedented number of bird flu outbreaks among poultry and wild birds has been reported worldwide. Alongside wild bird and domestic poultry infections, there have been increased detections in non-avian species, the WHO says, including in wild animals, marine mammals and occasionally in farmed or captive species.



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The source of the exposure to the cats in Poland is unknown, the WHO says. However, there are several possibilities for the source of infection, among which the cats could have had direct or indirect contact with infected birds or their environments, eaten infected birds, or eaten food contaminated with the virus, the health body suggests.


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Of the 25 cats for which the information is available, two were outdoor cats, 18 were indoor with access to a balcony, terrace, or backyard, and five were indoor cats with no access to the outside environment. Seven cats are reported to have had the opportunity for contact with wild birds.

Fourteen cats have been euthanized, and a further 11 died, with the last death reported on 30 June. Post-mortem exams on a small number of cats suggest pneumonia.



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Positive samples were reported from 13 geographical areas within Poland. Sporadic infection of cats with bird flu has previously been reported, but this is the first report of a high number of infected cats over a wide geographical area within a country, the WHO said.

Some cats developed severe symptoms including difficulty in breathing, bloody diarrhea and neurological signs, with rapid deterioration and death in some cases.


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In total, 20 cats had neurological signs, 19 had respiratory signs, and 17 had both neurological and respiratory signs.



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What is the risk of bird flu to humans?

To date, human infections following contact with an infected cat have not been documented, the WHO said.

Therefore, the WHO said the risk of human infections following exposure to infected cats is low for the general population, and low to moderate for cat owners and those occupationally exposed to infected cats without the use of appropriate personal protective equipment.


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Last week, the WHO and its partners warned the increasing number of mammals infected with bird flu was unusual. Experts have previously cautioned that pigs, which are susceptible to flu viruses from both humans and birds, might act as a “mixing vessel,” leading to the emergence of mutated viruses that could be lethal to people.



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Since last year, authorities in 10 countries have reported bird flu outbreaks in mammals, including farmed mink in Spain, seals in the U.S., and sea lions in Peru and Chile.


Poland case ‘very concerning,’ expert says

Shayan Sharif, a professor and associate dean with the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, told Global News the development in Poland is “very concerning.”


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“Every single step that the virus takes in order to increase its adaptability and its success rate to infect mammals, it’s basically bad news for us because it means that the virus is getting more and more adapted to mammals,” he said.

“The ultimate question, the existential question about this virus is whether it would gain the capacity and capability for infecting humans. And then not only infecting sporadically humans, but would it actually be able to sustain a transmission cycle within human populations?”



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Sharif added while the current state of bird flu presents a low risk to humans, Canadians with pets must be “very observant” of them.

“Avian influenza in pets and dogs and cats would have signs such as lethargy.… Unfortunately, in some other cases they might actually have severe signs such as diarrhea, and neurological signs such as tremors and seizures and things of that nature,” he said.


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“Minimize the risk of exposure. For cats, keep them indoors. For dogs, put them on a leash. Make sure that they have limited amount of exposure to dead birds or to any potential objects that might have been contaminated with bird secretions or feces. These are some of the big things that we can do.”

— with files from The Associated Press


&copy 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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