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Cats have recently tested positive for bird flu in areas where outbreaks have been detected. Westend61/Getty Images
  • Bird flu has been documented as jumping to other animals, including cats.
  • In March 2024, it was detected in five cats that later died.
  • Cats can become infected if they are around infected animals or contaminated areas.
  • However, it is extremely unlikely that they will pass the virus to humans.
  • To be safe, keep your cat indoors and wash your hands after handling it or its waste.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), avian influenza (“bird flu”) is a contagious viral disease that affects birds, both wild and domestic.

This illness, which is caused by the avian influenza A(H5N1) virus, can vary in severity.

However, highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) strains can decimate poultry flocks within days.

Also of concern is the fact that the virus has been detected in a variety of animals, including livestock and wild mammals.

Closer to the average person’s home, however, are the cases that have occurred in animals that have close contact with people, such as house pets.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that, over the years, the bird flu virus has been detected sporadically in domestic animals, including cats, dogs, goats, and dairy cows.

Most recently, in March 2024, the virus was found in barn cats at two farms where there were infected dairy cattle. All five cats died.

There have additionally been two human cases during the current outbreak, which began in March 2022. Their symptoms were mild, and they recovered quickly.

With the virus increasingly proving capable of jumping from one species to another, it raises the question of whether having close contact with cats poses any risk to humans.

Is there any risk that your cat will contract bird flu?

Dr. Paola Cuevas, a veterinarian, MVZ, and behaviorist with Catster, said, “Cats, like other mammals, are susceptible to infection with the highly pathogenic strains of the avian influenza virus (HPAI) if they come in direct contact with infected animals.”

In the case of the barn cats, Cuevas said it is believed that they may have eaten infected wild birds.

Additionally, they lived in cattle barns with confirmed infected animals.

Dr. Alex Crow, a veterinary surgeon with Pet Health Guru, agreed with Cuevas, adding that infected birds and contaminated environments are the main ways in which cats can contract bird flu.

Cuevas went on to say that the infected barn cats were not the only cases.

In 2023, there were cats infected with HPAI H5N1 in Poland as well as cases of cats being infected with HPAI H5N6 in Asia in the 2016-2017 outbreaks..

“About 10 outbreaks in felids have been documented globally in the past 20 years, and in six of those, a raw chicken diet was suspected as a potential source of A/H5N1,” she said.

How likely is it that you’ll catch bird flu from your cats?

Crow said that while there is some risk, it’s important to distinguish fact from fiction so we don’t become unnecessarily afraid.

“Currently, we know that cats can contract bird flu, also known as avian influenza, through contact with infected birds or contaminated environments,” he explained.

However, according to Crow, the risk to humans is “incredibly low.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that there have been no cases of human-to-human transmission of the illness, he said.

Additionally, the CDC says that the risk of humans contracting bird flu from cats is extremely low.

How can you protect yourself and your cat?

Cuevas said, “[W]hile the risk is low and unlikely, this does not mean impossible, so taking precautions to minimize your cat’s risks and exposure is very important; avoid allowing your pet to have direct contact with wildlife.”

She also stated that it’s essential to remain updated on what your local health authorities are saying and to keep a close eye on your pets.

“If your area is free of avian influenza, this is a great time to start planning a gradual outdoor-to-indoor transition for your cat. Building a ‘catio’ [a cat patio], for example, will allow them to enjoy the sun and fresh air while greatly minimizing their risks,” said Cuevas.

She also suggests that you don’t feed your cat raw poultry or allow them to hunt for their food.

“Have strict rodent control in your home, and please don’t leave those tasks to your cat,” she said.

Additionally, practice good hygiene, such as washing your hands, especially when handling food.

You’ll also want to keep your cat’s food and water bowl clean and out of any area where bird droppings could potentially contaminate them.

Finally, Cuevas recommends getting into the habit of making your home a shoe-free zone.

Bacteria, viruses, and parasites can make their way into your home on the soles of your shoes, she said.

The takeaway

The highly pathogenic avian influenza strain of bird flu has been documented as jumping from birds to other animals, including cats.

The virus can be deadly in cats, however, the effects in humans have thus far been mild.

Cats may contract bird flu by being exposed to sick birds or contaminated environments.

However, the risk that they will pass the virus to humans is extremely low, and there have been no documented cases of human-to-human transmission.

To protect your pet and yourself, keep them away from wildlife. Also, wash your hands after handling your cat or their waste.

See your veterinarian if you have any concerns about their health.