Dear Dr. Barchas,
J. Fenster, Topeka
West Nile virus has spread rapidly across the U.S. over the last few years. It primarily affects birds, horses, and people. In rare instances, people infected with the virus can experience meningitis, encephalitis (a brain infection), and death. That’s why it is in the news so much.
Based on blood tests, it appears that dogs and cats can be infected with the virus. However, they almost never get sick from it. And, they are especially unlikely to die, or to serve as reservoirs of the disease. In other words, West Nile virus does not pose much of a health risk to dogs and cats.
West Nile virus is spread by mosquitoes, and transmission from house pets to people is not thought to occur.
Although West Nile virus isn’t much of a threat to dogs and cats, there are still reasons for your pets to avoid mosquitoes. Both species are vulnerable to deadly heartworm disease, which is spread by mosquitoes. And some cats can suffer severe allergic reactions after being bitten by mosquitoes.
The best way to avoid mosquitoes is to keep your pet indoors and away from mosquito infested areas, especially at dawn and dusk. Human mosquito repellents should not be used on pets, especially cats. Medications that prevent heartworm disease are available for dogs and cats. Ask your vet whether one of these medicines is appropriate for your pet.