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H7N2 Confirmed Cats Increase To 386

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At a quarantine center in Queens for cats exposed to a rare strain of avian flu, workers must wear full protective gear at all times, even playtime. CreditAlex Wroblewski for The New York Times

In an industrial corner of Queens on Monday, on the second floor of a cavernous warehouse, in a gated-off area known as Pod C, a worker in a hazmat suit, goggles and a respirator mask sat on the floor of a metal cell.

She held a colored string with a ball dangling from it. With the other hand, she petted a cat. “Psswsswss,” the woman said through the mask. The cat arched its back against her latex-gloved hand.

All around her, other workers in hazmat suits attended to other cats, playing, feeding them, changing their litter. A bigger room downstairs held hundreds more, many of whom had the sniffles.

This scene, like something out of a post-apocalyptic cat video, is now playing daily at a temporary quarantine center the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals opened on Dec. 29 to house the entire feline population of New York City’s shelter system, some 500 cats.

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In November, cats at the shelters started getting sick at an alarming rate. The culprit turned out to be a strain of bird flu that had never before been seen in cats, and had not been found in any animal in 10 years.

The virus, a mild form of the flu strain H7N2, is usually not life-threatening to cats; the main symptoms are runny nose and eyes, congestion, coughing and lip smacking. It is only slightly transmissible to humans, and causes only mild illness, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But an unfamiliar disease in a new population is a serious thing. The outbreak is also by far the biggest influenza outbreak ever observed in cats.

“Any time influenza viruses start to behave in an unusual way, there’s a concern about what might happen,” said Aleisha Swartz, a doctor on loan from the University of Wisconsin veterinary school’s shelter medicine program, which is managing medical care at the quarantine center. “There’s this virus that popped up, and if we didn’t respond, it could have become widespread in cats all over the place.”

So far, 386 of the cats have tested positive for the virus. None can leave until they are deemed flu-free, which could take weeks.

Most of the cats at the quarantine center are housed in group kennels so they can socialize.CreditAlex Wroblewski for The New York Times

While a few cats that were adopted from the shelters during the outbreak had also contracted the virus, it seems to have been contained.

In some ways, the center, with its grids of cells and multiple levels of security to thwart escape attempts, feels like a prison. Inmate No. A1099603 is an orange-and-white tabby named Aries. A sign on his cage says, “Moved from J12 to I45 due to fighting/roughhousing.”

In other ways, it is a giant infirmary. Caretakers note symptoms on the Medical and Behavior Concerns Board (“bloody nose,” “not eating/seems weak”). In makeshift doctors’ offices off the main cage areas, patients are examined and medications dispensed.

The center is staffed by professional animal-crisis workers, who have converged on Queens from all over the country — they are being put up at a hotel nearby — and by local A.S.P.C.A. volunteers. Each morning, about four dozen responders file into the warehouse, on a side street in the Long Island City neighborhood opposite a cold-storage facility and a cement plant. They gather in an open office beneath a chart that lays out the chain of command, get their marching orders, suit up and pass through a plastic-lined portal into the hot zone.

Kristi Heytota, a staffing coordinator for JetBlue in New York who took five days off to help at the center, spent Monday morning scooping out litter boxes and lining the group kennels with fresh paper. Her assignment, which also included feeding the cats, was “tough, but very rewarding,” she said.

Justine Matthews, also on kibble duty, said, “It’s just what we have to do to get these guys well.” She was visiting from the San Diego Humane Society.

During the day, the cats keep pretty quiet. “But they have a nice ruckus overnight,” said Tim Rickey, the A.S.P.C.A. field-investigations official who set up the quarantine center. “We come in and the place is destroyed.”

How H7N2, last seen in 2006 in poultry-market birds in the city and elsewhere, found its way into a cat in 2016 remains an epidemiological mystery.

In mid-November, at the flagship city shelter in East Harlem, a cat named Mimi fell ill with a respiratory infection that turned into fatal pneumonia. Robin Brennen, the veterinary director of Animal Care Centers of NYC, which operates the shelters, ordered tests from a lab. The result came back: a canine influenza virus, H3N2.

That did not make sense to Dr. Brennen. H3N2 spreads quickly in dogs, and none of the dogs at the shelter had it. “I thought that was bizarre,” she said, “and that was when I called in Dr. Newbury.” Sandra Newbury is the director of the shelter medicine program at the University of Wisconsin, which works with shelter systems all over the country. She ordered further tests.

Barbara Kirch, a veterinarian from North Carolina who is helping at the quarantine center, examines a flu patient named Genie. CreditAlex Wroblewski for The New York Times

At the same time, the flu was spreading quickly and had made its way to the shelters in Brooklyn and on Staten Island. But Animal Care Centers of NYC felt obliged to keep taking in stray and unwanted cats. “We’re an open-admission shelter,” Dr. Brennen said. “Our responsibilities to our city contract still exist.”

Gradually, though, Animal Care Centers was able to slow the influx to a trickle. Some cats bound for the shelter were farmed out to private rescue groups, while others were housed in mobile adoption vans. Some cat owners looking to surrender their pets were even persuaded to keep them.

On Dec. 12, the virology group at the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory identified the virus as H7N2.

By then every cat at the shelter was presumed to have been exposed to the virus, which can live on some surfaces for days. The only way to break the cycle of infection, Dr. Brennen said, was to find a place to store 500 sick and exposed cats, and decontaminate the shelters.

She contacted the A.S.P.C.A., which organizes animal-crisis response centers all over the country. The organization found the warehouse, shipped in supplies and personnel and moved the cats out to Queens. Dogs and rabbits at the same shelters were not infected and were allowed to stay.

The virus, which is contagious for up to three weeks, is gradually ebbing at the quarantine center. “What we expect to see over the next week or two is a rolling wave of everybody starting to go negative,” Dr. Newbury said. Soon, cats will start being released to shelters and adopters.

A corner of the second floor is devoted to critical-care cases. One of them is a 5-month-old calico named Freya. For days she sat hunched, unmoving.


“I called it the toaster position,” said Mary Lummis, a visiting veterinarian from North Carolina. On Monday, she said, one of Freya’s caregivers got her to eat some food. “She’s turned a corner and we’re like, ‘Yippee!’”

The Wisconsin researchers, in the meantime, have discovered something else: Mimi was not the earliest H7N2 case. A gray-striped kitten named Alfred had been brought to a shelter in the Bronx in late October, gotten sick shortly after being adopted, and died on Nov. 12.

“Alfred is Patient Zero,” Dr. Brennen said.

No one has been able to figure out where Alfred might have picked up H7N2.

“That’s to me the scary part,” Dr. Brennen said. “Weird.”

Correction: January 15, 2017 

A cover article this weekend about shelter cats in New York City infected with H7N2, also known as the bird flu virus, misstates the surname of a volunteer working at a temporary quarantine center. She is Kristi Heytota, not Heytoya.

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A rare strain of bird flu recently surfaced in sick cats in New York.

Tests have confirmed that 386 cats housed in New York City's Animal Care Centers (ACC) were infected with the H7N2 strain of the influenza virus, The New York Times reported. One veterinarian who had prolonged exposure to the infected cats tested positive and recovered. At least two cats at the shelter died after being infected, one had the virus before it was admitted to an ACC shelter, the Times said.

"Anytime influenza does unusual things, scientists get interested," said Sandra Newbury, director of the Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who assisted in identifying the virus strain that was infecting the ACC cats and managing their care. "This is the first time this virus has been detected and transmitted among cats." [6 Flu Vaccine Myths]


But it's not clear how these how the cats contracted the virus in the first place, Newbury told Live Science.

The new virus first came to light after a deceased shelter cat tested positive for influenza A, Newbury said. Dr. Robin Brennen, the veterinary director of Animal Care Centers of NYC, which runs the shelter where the dead cat was found, contacted Newbury. It wasn't immediately clear which strain of influenza A the cat had, and the experts first suspected it to be the H3N2 strain, which is known to infect dogs.

But Newbury said this hunch was questioned because none of the shelter dogs were ill. Further testing, done through the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, revealed that the dead cat had been infected with H7N2, a strain of influenza A virus that has been known to infect birds. It is, therefore, a kind of "bird flu."

Many local and national animal and health agencies collaborated to quarantine and treat approximately 500 shelter cats, and to look for any continued risk to animal or human health, she said.

Although it's not common, cats have been known to come down with influenza. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that cats with the flu usually experience only mild illness, showing such symptoms as sneezing, coughing, fever, low energy, loss of appetite and a discharge from the nose or eyes. Newbury said in a very rare instances, cats with the flu may develop pneumonia.

But influenza in cats shouldn't be confused with what people often casually call "cat flu." This term often refers to infections with other viruses, such as feline herpes or feline calicivirus, both of which can also cause respiratory infections.

As with humans, influenza virus infections in cats can be spread through the transfer of fluids from an infected cat's eyes, nose or mouth to the eyes, nose or mouth of another cat, according to the CDC. Newbury said this can happen through direct contact between the cats, through a cough or sneeze, or through what's called "fomite transmission," which means that the virus can be transferred from a sick cat to an object, and from that object to another cat.

The spread of the H7N2 virus among the shelter cats could have been a much bigger problem, she said. "In this case, since it is a new pathogen to cats and immunity usually develops with exposure, we would assume that very few cats have immunity to it. That means most cats would be susceptible to infection with the virus," Newbury said. [Flu Shot Facts & Side Effects (Updated for 2016-2017)]

The good news is that […] infections have been reported only in cats that were either housed at the ACC shelter, or were in direct contact with a cat that had been housed at the ACC, she said. Newbury stressed that it's unlikely for a cat to have influenza unless it was adopted from the ACC shelter between Nov. 1 and Dec. 15, 2016. No other animals in the shelter tested positive for the virus.

People can pick up an H7N2 infection from cats, as shown by the ACC veterinarian who tested positive, likely through the same ways that the virus spreads from cat to cat, Newbury said. However, as of Dec., 22, 2016, of the more than 350 people who were in contact with the ACC cats and were screened for H7N2, only the one veterinarian tested positive, according to the NYC Health Department. This suggests that even people who are exposed to cats infected with the virus are unlikely to become ill, according to the CDC. The CDC reports there are two previously known cases of H7N2 in people, from 2002 and 2003, and in both cases there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. Currently, there is no vaccine to protect against H7N2, but the CDC says, "There is a candidate vaccine virus (CVV) in the U.S. pandemic preparedness stockpile that could be provided to flu vaccine manufactures to mass produce a H7N2 flu vaccine in the case of an emergency."

Hearing about changes in the spread of influenza, particularly one with a reputation like bird flu, can be alarming. But Newbury advised against excessive concern in this case. "Most people should not be concerned that their cat has influenza," she said. "If your cat has clinical signs of respiratory disease, it is best to contact your veterinarian."

Original article on Live Science.


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