for National Geographic News
A German cat apparently ate the wrong canary.
Or, more likely, it nibbled at the carcass of one of the hundreds of dead birds that have been found in recent weeks on the island of Rügen.
Whatever it ate, the dead cat tested positive for the deadly H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus, German authorities announced yesterday. The domestic animal is the first mammal known to die of the disease in Europe.
Cats, including tigers and panthers, have died of bird flu in Thailand.
"It has long been known from Asia that cats can be infected if they eat infected birds," Thomas Mettenleiter, lab director at Germany's Friedrich Loeffler Institute, told the Sydney, Australia, newspaper the Daily Telegraph.
"The very nature of cats is that they are hunters," Lonnie King, dean of Michigan State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, told National Geographic News.
"And sick birds are easier to catch."
The infected cat was found near a ferry terminal on Rügen, a Baltic Sea island north of Berlin, not far from Germany's border with Poland (see map).
In Germany more than a hundred wild birds have died of avian influenza, most of them on Rügen. Authorities there have been rushing to remove bird carcasses in an attempt to stave off incidents like the infection of the housecat.
Cat fanciers are nervous, with various Web sites urging German cat owners to keep their pets indoors. There is also a report that fearful European pet owners may be about to dump large numbers of cats on humane societies.
But scientists and officials are saying there's no need for panic.
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