A dead tomcat in the Baltic Sea island of Rügen has caused public alarm not just in Germany, but made front page news in more than one reputed European daily. Imagine the pet-loving Europeans having to cull their beloved pets! One German minister has suggested shooting infected cats on the principle of mad dogs – and earned howls of protest, from his fellow compatriots. The first signs of panic are already in the air.
Dead swan on ice in Rügen, possibly from the H5N1virus
It’s been known for quite some time that cats can become infected by eating infected birds. Several large cats in Asian zoos have died of bird flu, the H5N1 virus has been detected in a leopard, in tigers and in civet cats in Thailand - and domestic cats seem to be especially vulnerable in this regard.
But Rügen is the place where the first H5N1-infected birds were found in Germany, and now the dead tomcat of Rügen has sent a cold shiver down many a spine. ‘Is my cat safe?’ is being inevitably followed by the question ‘Am I safe from my cat?’ And then what about the dog?
After the first hitches in recovering the dead birds, disinfecting the sites and controlling domestic fowl on that very island, Rügen, nobody is taking chances. The method will be the same as in the case of the dead H5N1-infected birds: recover the animal cadaver, disinfect and isolate the site, check and observe any animal or animals – and human beings – who might have come into contact with the dead animal. The sites of such macaber finds will be marked as ‘restricted areas’ where all domestic cats will have to stay indoors and dogs will have to be taken on the leash outside. Then there will be ‘observation areas’ where such precautions will be recommended but not compulsory.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is being kept informed regarding developments, government spokesman Thomas Steg told the press.
The dead tomcat of North Rügen was a stray, but with an owner who reports that the cat strayed to him not many days back.
The national emergency committee – comprising representatives of the federal government as well as of the states – has already decided on stricter restrictions for pets: mostly cats on house arrest and dogs on the leash, as a preliminary. This will be first enforced in the states where there have already been cases of H5N1 among dead birds. German Animal Welfare Federation is against a country-wide house arrest for cats and dogs.
Experts are considering other aspects, such as the fact that a rather large number of cats have been dying of H5N1 in Iraq. Or that nobody really knows how the virus spreads and under what circumstances – it seems to have become suddenly active in February, so far as Europe is concerned. Apparently three mutations of the bird flu virus have been found in the the past, but it seems to have stopped mutating since. So the level of danger – for human beings – can be assumed to have remained the same.
Ultimately, the human race has never been better equipped to cope with an influenza epidemic – or even pandemic - than at present, experts believe.