Are Bird Flu H7N9 Or MERS A Concern For Pet Ferrets?

These two new diseases are making headlines, so Dr. Murray weighs in on possible risks to pet ferrets.

ferret peeking out from bedding
Ferret Cecil/ © Courtesy Mary Cruse
The swine flu of 2009 and 2010 reached the United States and infected some ferrets, but will the current H7N9 avian flu do the same?

Two new viral diseases have been in the news recently. One is the new “bird flu” virus (H7N9), and the other is a new human coronavirus called the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome  (MERS) Coronavirus. The new bird flu is mostly in poultry in China; however, it is also contagious to people. The new coronavirus is mostly in the Middle East and Europe, and it is a serious and frequently fatal infection of people. Let’s look at how these new and emerging human diseases might impact our pet ferrets.

The new avian influenza virus has been confirmed in more than 130 people in China. Most of these patients suffered severe respiratory illness or fatal outcomes, and most of them had direct contact with poultry (chickens or ducks).

Can ferrets get the flu? Yes, ferrets are susceptible to the flu virus. So far the new bird flu has only been reported in China, but it might become a worldwide outbreak similar to the “swine flu” (H1N1) of 2009 and 2010. That swine flu made it to the United States and did infect some ferrets. Confirmed cases occurred in pet ferrets in Pennsylvania, Nebraska and Oregon. In addition a ferret farm in Iowa had an outbreak. There was also a black-footed ferret in a zoo in California that came down with the swine flu. Fortunately all but one of these ferrets survived. The only fatal case was an 8-year-old ferret who may have had other diseases in addition to the flu. These cases were spread from people to the ferrets, but it is also possible for ferrets to pass the flu to other ferrets and even to people.

If the new bird flu becomes a global problem (a pandemic) like the swine flu did, then it is likely that pet ferrets will be at risk. Clinical signs of the flu in ferrets include coughing, sneezing, a discharge from the eyes and nose, a fever, lethargy, a lack of appetite, and weight loss.

Treatment for a ferret with the flu is very similar to how people with the flu are treated. Supportive care includes fluids (sub-cutaneous or intravenous) for dehydration, soft foods (such as Hill’s a/d, Gerber’s baby food, Oxbow’s Carnivore Care or Lafeber’s Carnivore), and antibiotics if needed for any secondary bacterial infections. In severe cases, antiviral medications like Tamiflu (oseltamivir) or Relenza (zanamivir) may be needed.

A ferret owner with signs of flu should avoid contact with his or her pet ferrets; have someone else take care of them until you have recovered. If another care provider is not available, then thoroughly wash your hands before handling your ferrets and limit your time with them until you have recovered from the flu. Wearing a face mask is another way to help reduce the risk of spreading the flu virus to your ferrets.

The other emerging disease is a novel coronavirus infection. This coronavirus was discovered in 2012, and more than 55 human cases have been reported so far. Most of the cases have been in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, but a few cases have been seen in the United Kingdom, Italy, France and the African country of Tunisia.

Can ferrets get a coronavirus infection? Yes, there are actually two different coronaviruses that are common in ferrets. The first ferret coronavirus was discovered back in 1993, and it causes a disease of the stomach and intestinal tract. The disease syndrome was called epizootic catarrhal enteritis (ECE). Then in 2004 another ferret coronavirus was discovered in Spain. This systemic coronavirus is now common in America, Europe and Japan.

Will the new human Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus spread to ferrets? Luckily this human virus will probably not pose a risk for pet ferrets, just like the human SARS coronavirus of 2003 did not cause a problem for ferrets.

For more information on these diseases, check out the World Health Organization info on H7N9 and MERS

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