H1N1 Flu Virus FAQ

Updated February 14, 2010

These questions and answers are based on what is currently known about the virus, and will be updated as we get new information.

Q: What is the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus?

A: The 2009 H1N1 influenza is a strain of influenza that was first reported in North America in March/April 2009 and has since spread worldwide. The virus contains genetic pieces from four different virus sources, which is unusual. It consists of North American swine influenza viruses, North American avian influenza viruses, human influenza viruses and swine influenza viruses found in both Asia and Europe.

Although it is commonly called "swine flu" by the media, it is absolutely NOT swine flu. People, not pigs, are spreading this virus to other people. Swine flu is a respiratory disease caused by a type A influenza virus that can cause outbreaks of influenza in pigs and does not readily spread to people or other animal species. The "classical" swine flu virus (also an influenza type A H1N1 virus, but very different from the 2009 H1N1 virus) was first isolated from a pig in 1930. Swine flu viruses cause illness in pigs, but the death rates are low.

Q: How does this virus differ from bird flu?

A: The 2009 H1N1 flu virus is an entirely different virus than the bird flu (H5N1) you've been hearing about in the news. Among these differences is that humans infected with bird flu were infected by direct contact with sick birds, and this new virus is not generally being spread by contact with animals (with only two exceptions to date). In addition, the highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza virus that causes the bird flu in the news has not been reported in North America to date.

Q: Did this flu come from pigs? Can I catch it from pigs?

A: At this time, we don't know exactly where the virus came from. Although this new influenza is being called "swine flu," it is being spread mainly from person to person. None of the U.S. cases had contact with pigs.

On May 2, 2009 Canadian authorities announced 2009 H1N1 infection in a herd of pigs in Alberta. Exactly how the pigs became infected is not known at this time - initial reports indicated the pigs were infected by a farm worker who had recently traveled to Mexico, but this was proven wrong when blood tests on the worker showed he had never been exposed to the 2009 H1N1 virus. For updates, go to the CFIA's Web site. The virus has also been detected in several swine herds in Manitoba and in a swine herd in Northern Ireland.

There have been two confirmed cases of swine-to-human transmission of the 2009 H1N1 virus. Two Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors became ill with the 2009 H1N1 virus while investigating an outbreak of the virus on a swine farm in Alberta in late April 2009.

So far, 2009 H1N1 influenza virus infection of pigs has been reported in Canada, Argentina, Singapore, the United Kingdom (England and Northern Ireland), Ireland, Norway, the U.S., Japan, China, Finland, Germany, Chile, Russia, Taiwan, Italy, Republic of Korea and Denmark.

Although the WHO announced in August 2010 that the pandemic had "largely run its course," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), World Health Organization (WHO), and other health agencies worldwide continue to perform global surveillance.

Q: Can this flu infect birds? Can I get it from birds?

A: We know it can infect poultry, but we don't know if it can affect other birds (including pet birds). In August 2009, authorities in Chile reported 2009 H1N1 influenza in two turkey farms near Valparaiso. In October 2009, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed 2009 H1N1 in a turkey flock in Ontario, Canada. The virus has been confirmed in turkey farms in Virginia and California. It is not yet known if infected birds can pass the 2009 H1N1 virus to humans.

Q: What is known about the 2009 H1N1 virus?

A: This new virus was first reported in late March/early April 2009 in central Mexico and the border states of California and Texas. Since that time, the virus has been reported worldwide. Genetic testing suggests the virus originated in pigs, but we don't know exactly when or where it "leaped" to humans.

The symptoms are very similar to human respiratory flu, with possible additional gastrointestinal side effects such as vomiting, stomach ache and diarrhea. In the United States, the majority of cases so far have had self-limiting flu-like symptoms—just as with the "normal" seasonal flu, they are ill for a few days and then recover. In severe cases, pneumonia can develop. Deaths have been reported, but most people recover from this flu in the same way they recover from the usual human flu. People at higher risk of disease, or more severe disease, include pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

The information is rapidly changing because this is an emerging situation. For up-to-date information, the CDC H1N1 Flu site is a good resource.

Q: How did the new virus develop? Where did it come from?

A: In general, influenza viruses commonly stick to one species when it comes to infection; for example, dogs and cats don't get seasonal flu from their owners. However, under the right conditions, influenza viruses from different species are capable of mixing and swapping genes (this is called reassortment), resulting in a new virus. Swine flu can merge with other influenza viruses, such as avian or human flu, to produce new strains. The 2009 H1N1 flu virus consists of North American swine influenza viruses, North American avian influenza viruses, human influenza viruses and swine influenza viruses found in both Asia and Europe.

Q: Can my pet get the 2009 H1N1 virus?

A: Until recently, we had no reason to believe pets could be infected with the 2009 H1N1 virus because it is very uncommon for flu viruses to jump between species. However, on October 9, 2009, a USDA laboratory confirmed 2009/H1N1 infection in a ferret. The ferret's owner had recently been ill with the flu. Ferrets are more susceptible to infection with influenza viruses, so this was not altogether surprising. A second ferret was confirmed to be infected with the virus in late October – this ferret died. At this time, there are no reports of the 2009 H1N1 flu virus being transmitted from a ferret to a person.

Since that time, 2009 H1N1 flu has been confirmed in ferrets, cats and a dog in the U.S. On November 4, the Iowa State Veterinarian and the Iowa Department of Public Health announced that a pet cat was confirmed infected with the 2009 H1N1 flu virus. The cat's owners were ill and the cat developed respiratory symptoms shortly afterward. The cat has recovered and there is no evidence at this time that the cat passed the virus to any people. A second cat, this one in Utah, was confirmed infected with the 2009 H1N1 virus on November 13. Like the first cat, the cat's owner was ill with flu-like symptoms prior to the cat's illness. The cat had difficult breathing and was taken to a veterinarian for treatment. The cat is recovering from its illness.

A third cat, in Oregon, died from 2009 H1N1 influenza-related pneumonia. As with the other cats, this cat showed signs of respiratory disease after a human member of the household had been ill with flu-like symptoms. Despite treatment, the cat died. Tests confirmed infection with the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus.

Two cats in different households in Colorado were confirmed to be infected with the 2009 H1N1 flu virus in early December 2009. Both cats recovered from their illness.

A sixth cat confirmed to be infected with the virus died in late November. This cat had pre-existing respiratory problems – severe pneumonia and fluid accumulation inside its chest caused the cat's death despite veterinary treatment.

The seventh infected cat, and the third to die from complications related to 2009 H1N1 influenza infection, lived in Pennsylvania.

France confirmed 2009 H1N1 infection in a cat on December 8. The 5-year old cat became ill after 2 children in the household had been ill.

On November 28, the Chinese press reported that 2 dogs in Beijing tested positive for the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus. We have not yet been able to confirm this report and do not have information about the signs of illness the dogs were showing, how they were diagnosed and treated, and if they have recovered. On December 21, 2009, a dog in New York state was confirmed to be infected with 2009 H1N1 influenza after it showed signs of illness following its owner's illness with confirmed 2009 H1N1 influenza infection. The dog is recovering from its illness.

On December 22, 2009, an 8-year old female domestic shorthaired cat in southern California tested positive for 2009 H1N1 influenza. Like the other infected pets to date, this cat's owner was previously ill with flu-like symptoms. The cat is recovering from its illness.

On January 15, 2010, it was reported than an 8-year old female domestic shorthaired cat in Colorado had tested positive for 2009 H1N1 influenza. This cat also had a feline herpesvirus infection. Although there was no known exposure to a person ill with flu-like symptoms, the cat had recently been adopted from a shelter and may have been infected prior or during its short shelter stay or had been exposed to a infected, but asymptomatic, person. None of the other cats at the shelter showed signs of illness. The cat is recovering from its illness.

No additional confirmed cases of 2009 H1N1 infection in pets were reported until February 2011, when IDEXX Laboratories announced that the virus was confirmed in a 6-year old cat in Wisconsin. The cat deteriorated and was euthanized. A second (10-year old) cat in the household also developed severe respiratory disease and was euthanized due to failure to respond to treatment; although samples from that cat were negative for the virus, 2009 H1N1 influenza remains the presumptive cause of illness and death in the second cat. The owner of the cats had been ill with flu-like symptoms prior to the cats' illness.

Pets that live indoors, especially cats, tend to have close contact with their owners – after all, that's why we have pets – and that increases their chances of being exposed to diseases. The best advice is to always follow common sense guidelines when dealing with animals (for example, washing your hands). In addition, it's more important than ever that pet owners keep a good eye on their pet's health and consult a veterinarian if their pet is showing any signs of illness. Keeping your pets healthy reduces their risk of becoming ill.

Q: I've heard about ferrets, cats and dogs getting the 2009 H1N1 virus. Should I get rid of my pet so my family is protected?

A: Certainly not. This is not cause for panic and extreme measures. You are much more likely to catch the flu (any type of flu, including the 2009 H1N1 flu) from an infected person than you are from an animal. So far, all of the pets infected with the 2009 H1N1 virus became infected from being around their ill owners with one exception – a Colorado cat with no known exposure, but a recent stay in an animal shelter, and authorities could not rule out exposure to an infected person who was not showing symptoms but still carrying the virus. The main lesson here is that if you're feeling ill and have flu-like symptoms, you should probably limit your contact with your pets (and other people, for that matter) until you are feeling better. As always, if your pet is showing signs of illness, it should be examined by a veterinarian.

Q: What symptoms would I see in my pet if it developed H1N1?

A: Based on what's been reported, ferrets, cats and dogs have shown signs of respiratory illness. These signs can include lethargy, loss of appetite, fever, runny nose and/or eyes, sneezing, coughing, or changes in breathing (including difficulty breathing). Several cats with severe disease have died.

Keep in mind that dogs currently have their own flu virus, the H3N8 influenza (canine influenza) virus, going around. So far, this flu virus has only been spread from dog to dog. Dogs infected with the canine influenza virus show the same symptoms as dogs with kennel cough – fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, coughing, and maybe a runny nose. For more in-depth information on canine influenza, view our canine influenza backgrounder.

Q: The 2009 H1N1 virus has infected poultry. What about my pet bird? Can it be infected?

A: We know it can infect poultry, but we don't know if it can affect other birds (including pet birds). To date, there have not been any reports of confirmed 2009 H1N1 influenza in pet birds or wild birds.

Q: How serious is this disease in dogs or cats?

A: We don't yet know. There haven't been many reports of animals in the U.S. infected with the 2009 H1N1 flu virus. Just as with people, the illness can vary. Four of the eleven infected cats recovered from their illness and five cats died of severe pneumonia. The one dog confirmed to be infected with 2009 H1N1 in the U.S. (in New York) recovered from its illness. It is possible that other pets have been infected but have shown no symptoms and have successfully fought off the virus without appearing ill. This isn't a cause for concern, but is actually a good sign that our pets are able to successfully fight off infection and illness due to the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus.

Q: Should I keep the people in the house who have respiratory disease away from the pet and vice-versa?

A: Until we know more about the risks of spreading the virus from person to pet, pet to pet, or pet to person, it's a good idea to limit contact between an ill family member and other family members and pets. If your pet is ill, contact your veterinarian.

Q: Is there a vaccine that can be used for pets? Can the human H1N1 vaccine be used for pets? What about the canine influenza vaccine?

A: There is not a licensed and approved 2009 H1N1 vaccine for pets. The human H1N1 and swine H1N1 vaccines should not be used for pets. The canine influenza vaccine, which protects dogs from the H3N8 flu virus, will not protect pets against the 2009 H1N1 virus and should not be used in any species other than dogs.

Q: Someone in my home is ill and may have the 2009 H1N1 virus. Should we board our pet(s) until this person has recovered?

A: That decision is really up to you. Your pet may have already been exposed to the virus by the time the family member starts showing symptoms, so it might not be best to uproot your pet, possibly stressing them, and put them in another environment. If you're worried your pet may become infected with the influenza virus, treat your pet like you would any other family member – follow good hygiene when you come in contact with them, and limit their exposure to ill family members.

Q: Can my pot-bellied pig get the 2009 H1N1 virus and give it to me?

A: To date, the 2009 H1N1 virus has not been reported in pot-bellied pigs. However, the possibility of human-to-pig transmission of the virus warrants extra caution by pig owners. After all, pot-bellied pigs are considered swine, and therefore may be susceptible to the virus. For the time being, a cautious approach would include all contact between your pig and anyone who is ill or has recently been exposed to an ill person. Remember that pot-bellied pigs can become ill from a number of causes, and keeping your pig healthy and free of disease helps protect your pig as well as you. If you have a pet pig and it appears ill, consult a veterinarian immediately.

Q: There are feral pigs in my area. Can they spread the 2009 H1N1 virus?

A: To date, the 2009 H1N1 virus has not been reported in feral pigs. However, pigs can become infected with the virus, and caution is recommended. Remember that feral pigs can spread other diseases, and it is best to avoid contact with them—this goes for you and your animals. Feral pigs are best left to the proper authorities to handle, so contact your local animal control office if you need to report a feral pig problem.

Q: I keep hearing the words "pandemic" and "epidemic." What do they mean, and what is the difference?

A: An epidemic is a marked rise in disease in an area. This new virus is certainly causing an epidemic. This is not unusual for a new virus—because people have not been exposed to the virus before, their immune systems aren't ready to fight it off, and more people become ill. The SARS epidemic of 2003 is an example.

A pandemic is like an epidemic that's expanded to a larger area. In most cases, "pandemic" is used to describe a world-wide epidemic of disease. The 1918 Spanish flu and the Black Plague are extreme examples of pandemics. Keep in mind, though, that a pandemic doesn't necessarily mean millions of deaths—it means a widespread epidemic.

Q: The 2009 H1N1 influenza virus has infected swine herds and poultry flocks. How does this affect the safety of our food? Can I get the 2009 H1N1 virus from eating pork or poultry?

A: So far, 2009 H1N1 influenza virus infection of pigs has been reported in Canada, Argentina, Singapore, the United Kingdom (England and Northern Ireland), Ireland, Norway, the U.S., Japan, China, Finland, Germany, Chile, Russia, Taiwan, Italy and Denmark.

There are no reported cases of the 2009 H1N1 flu virus in people from eating pork or poultry. On December 17, 2009, the USDA Agricultural Research Service published a study that confirms that the meat and tissues from pigs exposed to two strains of the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus did not contain the virus. Pigs infected with the virus developed mild signs of illness, but the virus was not present in the tissues or meat at 3, 5 or 7 days after exposure to the virus. This study emphasizes that pork, even from pigs which have recovered from illness due to 2009 H1N1 influenza, does not pose a foodborne illness threat.

Swine farms, poultry farms and veterinarians are continuing their surveillance and biosecurity programs to protect our nation's herds and our public health. Otherwise, the situation really hasn't changed for most of us.

However, good food hygiene is always recommended to protect yourself and your family from disease. As always, when consuming meat products safe food practices should be followed. You can consult the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Be Food Safe site for tips on the cleaning, preparation and safe cooking temperatures for pork, as well as other meat and poultry products. Caution and common sense are still important, and pork and poultry products are still safe to eat.

Q: How should I protect myself from getting the 2009 H1N1 virus?

A: Common sense is always the best guideline. According to the CDC, the following precautions should be taken at all times to promote good health:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then dispose of the tissue—flu and cold germs are spread mainly by person-to-person contact and the coughing or sneezing of infected people.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth, as these are the primary places germs can enter your body.
  • Have limited contact with people who are obviously sick.
  • If you get sick, stay home from work or school and limit contact with others.

Q: I think I might be sick with the new virus, and I want to get a prescription for an antiviral. Can I get that from my veterinarian?

A: No. It is illegal for a veterinarian to prescribe medications for people. It is also unethical and illegal for a veterinarian to write a false prescription for a pet so the pet's owner can obtain the medication for themselves.

Q: What if my pet needs an antiviral drug? Will my veterinarian be able to get the drugs?

A: This new H1N1 virus is spreading mainly by human-to-human contact. Keep in mind that pandemic planning, by necessity, must place a priority on treating infection in people—for that reason, antiviral medication supplies will be closely guarded and there may be strict guidelines in place that will determine how they are dispensed. Availability of antivirals may be low for non-pandemic response use. We encourage veterinarians to use their clinical judgment and weigh these factors when considering the necessity of an antiviral drug for a client's pet. The use of antiviral medications in food animals is strictly regulated—and is prohibited in some species—and food supply veterinarians are already aware of these regulations.

Q: I show pigs, and I'm worried about the H1N1 influenza virus. Should I stop showing my pigs?

A: The choice is really up to you. You don't have to stop showing, but you should take proper precautions to protect your pigs. The National Pork Board has released some guidelines for managing risk at swine exhibitions, and these are recommended reading for you.

Links to more information about the 2009 H1N1 flu

AVMA
Straight talk about the H1N1 virus
Dr. DeHaven, Chief Executive Officer of the AVMA, speaks with Bob Meyer of Brownfield (includes audio)

Dr. Ron DeHaven, chief executive officer of the American Veterinary Medical Association, explains H1N1 and how it affects people, their pets, and the food they eat.(May 1, 2009)

American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV)
AASV Human Cases of Swine Influenza

Flu.gov
Interactive timeline on H1N1: The Year in Review

CDC
CDC H1N1 Flu
For general information on H1N1 flu, general health information guidelines, updates on the status of the H1N1 flu outbreak, and travel advisories

2009 H1N1 Flu Frequently Asked Questions (including questions about H1N1 and domestic animals)

Interim Guidance for Workers who are Employed at Commercial Swine Farms: Preventing the Spread of Influenza A Viruses, Including the 2009 H1N1 Virus

USDA
Be Food Safe

Frequently Asked Questions About H1N1

Updated Statement By Agriculture Secretary Vilsack Regarding USDA Efforts Regarding H1N1 Flu Outbreak

OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health)
A/H1N1 influenza like human illness in Mexico and the USA: OIE statement

OIE/FAO Network of Expertise on Animal Influenza (Offlu)

OIE/FAO Offlu list of international veterinary diagnostic laboratories for submission of suspected Pandemic H1N1 2009 swine samples or isolates

World Health Organization (WHO)
WHO Swine Influenza