Indoor cats unlikely to be threatened by bird flu

This might be a good time to make your kitty an indoor pet.

While there have always been statistics to show that an indoor-only or indoor-mostly cat has a longer life span, now news from European veterinarians is all cats there should be kept indoors. That’s because at least one cat has caught a strain of the H5N1 flu from eating an infected wild bird.

The cat, found in Germany, is the first mammal to die of the disease in Europe. Experts there say the only way for cats to get the disease is to come into contact with birds that are carrying it. Right now, based on how the disease has been reported in humans in Asia, the flu does not spread from mammal to mammal. That means a cat could not catch the flu from another cat or transmit it to a human.

“It isn’t easy for a cat to become infected. This must have happened in very unusual circumstances. Probably the cat ate a highly infectious animal,” said Michael Schmidt, a virologist at Berlin’s Free University in Germany. “It is very rare for an infected animal to infect humans.”

Why worry about this at all, when it’s half a world away? If the bird flu does spread – and it has been detected in 20 new countries over the last month or so – it may find its way to the U.S. The European Union recommends that pet owners in affected areas keep their dogs on leashes and their cats indoors at all time so they won’t come into contact with a bird. In Germany, pet owners have been ordered to keep their cats inside and stray cats are being caught and presumably euthanized. It’s logical to think the same recommendation or order may be made here, if the virus H5N1 strain does come to Oregon.

Besides preventing your kitty from coming into contact with diseased wild animals, keeping a cat inside has other benefits. The dangers of being attacked by another cat, killed by a dog, run over by a car, or abused by a human are almost erased. Indoor-only cats have fewer parasites, like fleas and ticks. They can be fed indoors, too – which reduces the presence of animals like raccoons and possoms hanging around your house, waiting to indulge in your pet’s food. And healthy songbirds, like the kind your neighbors feed, are no longer at risk from your cat’s hunting prowess.

Some say indoor cats are not as healthy – they are overweight and sedentary. Not true. My next-door neighbors have two of the most beautiful indoor cats you’ve ever seen. Sleek, soft, and active, these cats enjoy sitting in the window, playing with multiple toys and cat trees, being fed regular meals (instead of having food sitting around all the time, which can lead to obesity), and having occasional outings into the garage. I would never think these cats are missing something by not being outside.

It can be tough to take cats used to being outdoors and limit them to being in the house. Some people build covered, screened porches that their cats can enjoy. It’s a great way to give them some “outside” time without running into problems. Even so, cats will protest the change in their schedule, and it just takes patience and time to get them over it.

First, I’d recommend investing in some good ear plugs. If your cat is used to going out in the early morning hours, as many are, you may hear howling for quite some time. Fortunately, most cats will drop the howling after a few days of realizing that doesn’t get them anywhere.

If your cat is used to going outside for elimination, you’ll need to get it used to the litterbox. Most cats do well with a litterbox, and there are several different kinds to choose from. Something relatively large with a cover, kept in a quiet location, is my suggestion. Experiment with cat litters if your pet doesn’t seem to like what you use initially.

You’ll also need some good toys and distractions for your cat. If you don’t have a cat tree or other cat furniture, now is a good time to purchase or make something. It must be extremely sturdy so your cat can use it as a scratching post.

You’ll also need a spray bottle filled with water or can filled with coins. If your cat starts to scratch at the door, claw the furniture, or otherwise misbehave, squirt water at it, shake the can, or say “no” firmly.

Will this always work? Of course not. Cats are smart, and they’ll test your patience. It’s not easy to convince a cat that you mean business, and you aren’t budging from your sudden desire to limit its freedoms. But the value is becoming more clear – cats are at risk outside. Cats are safer inside. Do what’s right for your cat.