September 24, 2013
September 28th is World Rabies Awareness Day. And most of us – both health professionals and others – are badly in need of a hefty infusion of rabies awareness. Rabies in cats is one such issue.
Here’ what you should know:
1. There are only one or two cases of human rabies in the U.S. each year (but that is two too many). Human rabies cases may be even more rare in Canada. However, just a month ago, a Canadian woman was bitten by a bat as she intervened in a fight between the bat and a cat. The bat was rabid. The woman required anti-rabies treatment.
These low numbers of human rabies cases are astounding accomplishments for animal control programs, considering that our woodlands are populated with a great number of rabid animals. However, there is no room for complacency. Experts believe that we will have to increase our efforts to prevent the number of human cases from rising.
2. In the U.S., cats are more likely to carry rabies than dogs. Historically, dogs were the primary domestic carrier – until the 1970s, when roundups of strays and vaccination programs virtually eradicated dog rabies. Huge numbers of the strays were euthanized. There has not been a case of human rabies from dogs in many years in the United States and Canada.
3. Pet cats can become infected. Many owners allow their cats to wander outside. And “indoor” cats sometimes get outside accidentally. In the U.S. and Canada, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats are the most common animals to be rabid. These animals are increasingly found in suburbs as suburbs encroach on woodlands. House cats are especially vulnerable to wild animals; they have become tame and cannot defend themselves (particularly if they’ve been declawed) while rabid wild animals are extremely aggressive.
4. Cats are less likely to be vaccinated than dogs. Rabies is still largely associated in the public’s mind with dogs. Estimates place the number of domestic cats in the U.S. at 70 million with only about two-thirds of them vaccinated. Thirty-eight states require rabies vaccination for dogs as compared with 30 for cats.
5. About 300 rabid cats are reported each year in the U.S. Thousands of people, many of them children, undergo rabies treatment because they were exposed to cats and rabies could not be ruled out. You cannot wait to see if symptoms of rabies appear in humans. Once symptoms appear the mortality rate is virtually 100%.
6. Consider rabies when dealing with sick cats that could have been exposed to wild animals. Call your veterinarian for further instructions. Exposure to a wild animal could have occurred days or months earlier. Classic signs of rabies in cats include changes in behavior (aggression, restlessness and lethargy), increased vocalization, loss of appetite, weakness, disorientation, paralysis, seizures and sudden death.
7. Vaccinating your cat protects you from rabies-related hassles. For example, let’s suppose your non-vaccinated cat bites or scratches your child’s visiting playmate. Depending on your local ordinances, you could be fined for failure to vaccinate, have to pay for lengthy quarantine and even be forced to have your cat euthanized.
8. Make your property non-inviting to wild animals. Keep pets inside or in a fenced-off area. Call your city’s Animal Control office to remove stray animals. Do not feed or water your pets outside. Keep your garbage securely covered. Do not attempt to handle or capture a wild animal that is acting strangely.
9. Feral cats are a major problem. Feral cats are domestic cats that are born in the wild and have never been pets. They are distinguished from stray cats, which are pet cats that have been lost or abandoned (source: Wikipedia). There are an estimated 50 million feral cats in the US. Some of them are rabid. Vaccinating all or even most of them is, practically speaking, not possible. To prevent rabies in cats, the animals would need to be vaccinated when they are kittens and then at regular intervals in succeeding years.
10. Plans to euthanize feral cats are vigorously opposed by many animal rights groups. Feral cats generally live in colonies of up to 25 cats. Animal rights groups suggest that such colonies are a humane alternative to euthanasia, that the animals should be trapped, neutered, vaccinated and returned to their habitat, where they will remain healthy, disease-free, and eventually die out. Animal control experts disagree, saying the cats are exposed to wildlife and will transmit rabies. Both sides do agree that feral cats are wild and not suitable for adoption.
For more information on World Rabies Awareness Day, visit www.worldrabiesday.org.
(Our next posting: Protecting Your Children from Rabies.)