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When the flu has you in its feverish, achy grip, who do you turn to for comfort? Friends and family often keep a distance, which is understandable, but kind of a bummer. But those of us lucky enough to have pets don’t need to suffer alone.
We can breathe hot, tainted air all over our dogs and cats, or even sneeze on them, and they don’t run away. In fact, many pets seem to revel in the extra attention of our zombie-like slowness and our gratitude for their devotion.
Best of all, there’s no worry about infecting our dogs or cats. We don’t have to cover our mouths or breathe in the other direction when they approach. We’re humans, and they’re not, and we just don’t transmit bad stuff to pets.
Right? Wait, can dogs get the flu? Can cats get the flu?
Actually, it’s no longer looking that way. There’s increasing evidence that people can pass along the flu to pets.
“We worry a lot about zoonoses, the transmission of diseases from animals to people,” said Christiane Loehr, an associate professor at the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine. “But most people don't realize that humans can also pass diseases to animals, and this raises questions and concerns about mutations, new viral forms and evolving diseases that may potentially be zoonotic. And, of course, there is concern about the health of the animals.”
This “reverse zoonosis” could account for the two weeks after my own flu a couple of years ago when Jake was lethargic, wouldn’t eat, and could barely pull himself out of bed for walks. We took him to the vet’s and still couldn’t figure out what it was.
Since learning of this new finding, I think I was the cause of his illness. And oh, the guilt of my newfound knowledge! There my yellow Lab was, lying next to me on the couch, keeping me close company while my human crew busied themselves elsewhere in the land of the healthy. And there I was, unwittingly making him as sick as a dog. I was even too weak to stop him from nosing into the trashcan full of tissues. I’m sure that soggy exploration didn’t do him any favors.
If only I’d known. But who knew people could make pets sick? Jake has made me sick more than once, but that usually involved him rolling in very dead things in the park and eating very gross things after. Of course, that’s a different kind of sick.
There’s now even a recommendation from scientists: “The researchers...suggest that people with influenza-like illness distance themselves from their pets.”
They may as well just come right out and say it: Misery may love company, but if you’ve got the flu, keep away from all humans, dogs, cats, and any other living, breathing creature who could make you feel better. Suffer by yourself, or swipe a stuffed animal from your kid. Turn on the TV, because you will see people and likely some pets, and they are immune to anything you have. You can breathe easy knowing they’re safe. That is, at least until science tells us otherwise.
Can dogs get the flu? Yes, but if you get the flu this season, will you shun your pet’s attention? Or will you take the chance, hug up on your four-legged prescription, and hope for the best?
Maria Goodavage is author of The New York Times bestselling book Soldier Dogs. She has been a staff writer at USA Today and the San Francisco Chronicle, and is a regular contributor at Dogster online magazine. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, daughter, and a big dog.