Photo courtsey of Safari West
A California cheetah was the first in the world to come down with swine flu. Now scientists are studying how the big cat caught the virus and what this could mean for other zoo animals, pets and people.
Nancy Lang says in the last twenty years she’s been running the Safari West Wildlife Preserve she’s seen animals get sick…but not with the flu.
“This is the first time, we were stunned.”
Lang is a biologist and owns Safari West near Napa. It houses 600 animals and is a combination of a zoo and resort. Lang says after she heard that a few domestic cats had swine flu she wanted to make sure her cheetahs were OK.
“I read about this in USA Today, I’ve been traveling a lot for business, and I came back and the cat was doing a little bit of coughing, its appetite wasn’t as good as it should be, so I requested that we get the swabs for swine flu and it came out positive.”
It’s not clear exactly how the cheetah came down with the H1N1 virus, but Lang says they think a sick employee infected the cat.
Marie Martinez is Safari West’s cat keeper – she’s at the “Cheetah Barn” where the four cheetahs stay.
“This is where we bring the cats in and this is where they’re housed in the evening, so they each have their own stalls, and you can see we’ve got the male to the back there and the little female.”
One of the females, Gijima, had the swine flu. Martinez helped nurse the eight-year-old cat back to health.
“It’s pretty much like a child at home, you know taking care of that kid, making sure they’re warm, are they drinking, are they eating? So that’s what you’re keeping an eye on and letting the vet know too, so that’s what we did with her.”
Martinez says Gijima has fully recovered – she was sick for about two weeks last month. She says no other animals at Safari West have shown flu-like symptoms. And visitors are not in danger of getting ill from the animals.
“When a cheetah anywhere has an influenza virus it’s a unique finding, this isn’t something we expected.”
Sharon Hietala is a professor and immunologist at the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System at UC Davis. Hietala’s lab is part of a network of laboratories around the nation tracking H1N1 in animals.
“So as scientists we want to understand the transmission, how this happened and how we can protect other cats or other animals. So we’re at one right now, we don’t know anything and it’s a piece of the puzzle.”
And the American Veterinary Medical Association is also trying to understand how humans are passing swine flu to animals. Kimberly May is a vet with the association.
“We know that animals can give us diseases but we often forget that we can give them to them as well.”
May says a cheetah isn’t that far removed from a domestic cat. There have been seven confirmed cases of H1N1 in house cats around the country, none in California. May says it’s believed the animals caught the virus from their owners. But she says eventually animals could transmit the virus to humans.
“We know it’s crossed the species barrier one way, it’s not impossible to consider that it would go back. Luckily we don’t have any evidence that it has so far, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”
So May’s advice for zookeepers and pet owners at this point is to remember to protect animals from the virus too. May says it’s really just common sense if you’re sick: cover your cough or sneeze, wash your hands and avoid close contact with animals…as well as humans.