Our domesticated friends can alert us to when avian flu hits the US.

It was common practice in the early 20th century for coal miners to keep a caged canary in the mines to act as an early warning against methane gas exposure. If the canary—which was more sensitive to the toxic gas than humans—keeled over, the miners knew it was time to get out of the trenches before they passed out, too. As the US gears up for a possible avian flu pandemic, our pets could act as a modern day version of this warning system.

Because avian flu is likely to infect cats and bird earlier than humans, the largest chain of animal hospitals in the country has teamed up with veterinary scientists at Purdue University to create an early warning system, called the National Companion Animal Surveillance Program (NCASP), by keeping close tabs on the health of our furry and feathered friends.

“We know that approximately three quarters of all emerging epidemics that occur in humans come from animals,” said Larry Glickman, professor of epidemiology at Purdue’s veterinary school. “It’s very likely that problems would occur in animals before they would occur in people.”

The idea is to catch a potentially infected pet while they are still in the hospital so that samples can be extracted for further testing. With over 500 hospitals in 44 states treating 80,000 animals a week, Banfield Animal Hospitals can collect data from sick pets, in real time. Probing software will scan each hospital’s database every 30 seconds to determine if pets are reporting symptoms of avian flu such as fever and coughing. The algorithm is especially sensitive to “hotspots”: where four or more pets brought to one hospital within five days display symptoms.

“If we detect the presence of a hotspot, then samples would absolutely be quickly sent off to be analyzed,” said Hugh Lewis, Banfield’s senior vice president. “And if it turned out to be avian flu, then we’d know that it existed in that part of the country, and we’d know who’d been in contact with that cat.”

Glickman and other veterinary scientists at Purdue will have direct access to the data and samples collected at Banfield hospitals. If Glickman’s team becomes wary of a hotspot, they can order samples from the sick pets to determine if their symptoms are a precursor to a human outbreak. At that point, they can alert state health agencies or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directly.

Aside from warning us of a possible avian flu epidemic, pets can also give us an early heads up to long-term health issues like cancer through this monitoring system.

For example, the same chemicals and toxins causing bladder cancer in animals after five years of exposure can result in human bladder cancer after 30 to 40 years of exposure. If the NCASP notices a statistically significant rise in animal bladder cancer in a particular region, actions could be taken before human suffering begins.

“These animals really are sentinels in terms of showing the disease earlier and identifying for us where potential problems might exist,” said Glickman.

Today Purdue’s veterinary school has enough funding to analyze data from the Banfield hospitals 24/7, but it only has enough money to conduct tests for avian flu when it encounters possible infections, according to Glickman. It would take another $3 to $5 million a year, he said, to conduct influenza tests nationwide every time a bird or cat shows suspicious signs.

“That’s really not a lot considering how much we are already spending on avian influenza preparedness.”

Originally published April 4, 2006

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