Can Bird Flu Spread to Humans? Can H5N2 Affect Your Pet?

April 13, 2015 Updated: April 13, 2015

As a new outbreak of Avian Flu spreads, people are naturally wondering whether the bird flu can cross over to humans, or even affect their pets.

The highly-contagious bird flu strain, designated as H5N2, has spread to 14 farms in Minnesota, affecting 94,00 turkeys, reported the West Central Tribune. The current strain of avian influenza, which is carried by wild waterfowl, originated on a large scale in Oregon and Washington in December 2014 and has been moving west. It reached Minnesota in late March, and cases have recently cropped up in North Dakota and South Dakota.

The strain recently crossed over from turkeys to chickens, appearing in a 200,000-strong commercial chicken flock in Wisconsin this week, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Bird flu can cross over to humans and other animals, although both instances are rare. 

To cut the risk of a crossover, authorities quickly cull infected flocks when the influenza is detected. 

“No human infections with these viruses have been detected in the United States, Canada or internationally at this time, however, similar viruses have infected people. It’s possible that human infections with these viruses may occur,” according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). “While human infections are possible, infection with avian influenza viruses in general are rare and–when they occur–these viruses have not spread easily to other people.”

The new virus is genetically different from the avian H5N1 viruses that killed many people in countries in Africa and Asia in the past.

The agency warns, though, that if a crossover were to happen it has the potential “to cause severe human disease,” while admitting that “there is limited experience with” the newly detected bird flu. 

The main way people could catch the disease? Contact with sick or dead birds, such as a wild bird hosting the disease, or flocks that have been infected. The CDC notes that there’s no evidence any human cases have ever come from eating poultry products that were properly cooked. 

People that have such exposure should monitor themselves for 10 days, paying close attention to symptoms such as coughing, a sore throat, or trouble breathing.

Any exposed person with new symptoms should promptly get evaluated by a medical professional, including being tested for bird flu.

Person-to-person transmission of avian influenza viruses have been rare in the past but shouldn’t be entirely discounted, especially because of the possibility that the influenza viruses could change and gain the ability to spread between people. Indeed, a study published in the journal Science in 2006 noted that just one change in the virus could leave humans susceptible to transmission from other humans. 

As for people’s pets, they haven’t currently been shown to be in danger. Cats seem to have been safe from any bird flu strains in history. At least one strain has affected dogs–the H3N8 virus that crossed over from horses.