Government advisers recommend that cats can be used to understand and prevent the spread of avian flu .
According to Prof Jeffrey Waage, member of Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) Science Advisory Group's Epidemic Diseases sub-group, 'The ability of mammals to contract and transmit the avian influenza virus has important human health implications.'
Advertisement'We know about cats as a potential host for avian influenza because of the extensive infection of cats in Asia in outbreaks there.'
The Defra report calls for more research to better understand the results of exposure on feral cats, farm cats and household pets and the risks of transmission to poultry.
As Prof Andrew Easton, of the University of Warwick, since culling of cats could not be done while at the same time, a vaccine was not currently available, it was important to prevent these animals from getting infected. However he said 'There are problems in doing that with cats in countryside areas which we recognize.'
The first report of a domestic cat vomiting, coughing up blood and dying from the bird flu virus H5N1 came some two years ago from Thailand. This was followed by the death of 147 captive tigers fed virus-infected chicken carcasses and cases in Indonesia.
Cats that come into contact with domestic and wild birds can become infected with the virus. It can then excrete the virus via the respiratory or digestive tract thereby transmitting the infection to other cats. In addition cats that are fed with virus-infected chickens can be infected directly through the gut.
Prof Waage asks Defra to hasten the reporting of avian influenza cases as well as taking samples, in addition to considering the wider economic implications of a poultry boycott or a walk-out by poultry workers if bird flu takes a hold.