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A LETTER in The Veterinary Record of February 25 reminded readers that avian influenza could infect not only a wide range of bird species but also a wide range of mammals. Species that could be affected included the domestic cat and the domestic dog, with cats being at risk of infection by eating infected birds. The authors, Dr Andrew Cunningham from the Institute of Zoology in London, and Dr Diana Bell from the Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Conservation at the University of East Anglia, noted that current strains of the virus appeared to be inefficient at infecting non-avian species. They warned, however, that if an avian epidemic of H5N1 influenza did reach Britain, increased care should be taken if veterinarians were presented with cases of acute respiratory disease in mammals (VR, February 25, 2006, vol 158, p 279).

A few days later, as if on cue, H5N1 avian influenza was confirmed in a cat on the German island of Rügen, where the disease had been previously confirmed in wild birds. Since then, the European Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health has issued precautionary recommendations for companion animal owners and veterinarians in areas where H5N1 avian influenza has been confirmed in wild birds. The BVA, meanwhile, has produced a briefing note on avian influenza in cats and other mammals (see p 314 of this issue).

The incident demonstrates the usefulness of letters in The Veterinary Record. More importantly, it illustrates the need to take companion animals into account when considering zoonotic diseases, whether for their role, where relevant, in the disease epidemiology, or as possible sentinels of disease. As always, risks need to be kept in perspective. However, companion animals do share the same environment as humans and are either vulnerable to, or may play a role in the transmission of, diseases of public health significance. In some cases, most notably rabies, their role in the epidemiology is well established. In others, the situation is less clear cut. The important thing is that potential risks are recognised and assessed, and precautions taken that are proportionate to the risk.

Companion animals feature in the Government’s Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (AHWS) which, as well as applying to farm animals,‘applies to dogs, cats, horses and other animals (including exotic species)’. The strategy notes that ‘As well as caring for the welfare of these animals we must also have regard for the risk they may pose as transmitters of disease to humans and farmed livestock and the risk of disease transfer to and from wildlife.’ Although most of the effort devoted to the AHWS has focused on farm animals, progress needs to made in the companion animal field, too.

In response to a recent consultation letter from the England AHWS Implementation Group (EIG), the BVA, in conjunction with the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA), suggested that insufficient attention had been given to companion animals in the AHWS and that this should be rectified. They called for a more coordinated approach to monitoring and surveillance of companion animal diseases, and for better monitoring of animals entering the country from abroad. Experience with the Pet Travel Scheme (PETS) has demonstrated how diseases previously exotic to the UK can enter the country. A database of all animals involved in PETS and any disease problems encountered would be helpful in this context. Looking further afield, there could be a case for developing a European AHWS for companion animals. This could aim to help coordinate and improve surveillance, and champion disease prevention programmes where appropriate.

Effective surveillance and disease prevention and control depend on animals being identified and, in their response to the EIG’s consultation letter, the BVA and the BSAVA supported microchipping as the most sensible way of achieving this in companion animals.

Answering a question on ‘working in partnership’, both associations identified the need for better partnership working across the companion animal sector. Although many organisations have an interest in companion animal issues, there is no formal overarching group that can take responsibility in this area. There is much to achieve through a coordinated approach. The two fields are not directly comparable but, in this respect, the kind of approach adopted in the equine field, which has seen the development of a horse industry strategy and an animal health and welfare strategy for horses, ponies and donkeys (VR, December 17, 2005, vol 157, p 785), might give an indication of how to proceed. Meanwhile, the Animal Welfare Bill has the potential to significantly affect developments in the companion animal field, but only if the proposed programme of secondary legislation is implemented and properly enforced. Education will also be important. If owners are to fulfil their duty of care to their animals, they need to be aware of the animal health and welfare issues affecting their pets, and when to seek expert help.

There are other examples, but the case of avian influenza in a German cat has highlighted the need for a more coordinated approach to surveillance in companion animals, and to companion animal issues generally.

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