Visiting the emergency room on a Sunday afternoon wasn’t in my weekend plans. However, when my cat Buddy bit my hand recently, I needed medical attention. Buddy hadn’t meant to bite me, but when he couldn’t get at the caterwauling cat on the other side of the screen door, he nailed me as I shooed him away so I could shut the wooden door. I should have known better. It was a classic case of redirected aggression. In other words, he was highly agitated by the other cat and since the cat was inaccessible, Buddy bit the next nearest thing — my hand.
Adding insult to injury was the appearance of an animal control officer at my door a few days later. I didn’t know that doctors were required by law to report human victims of animal bites to the health department, which then reported the bite to animal care and control. When the officer said he would have to take Buddy for a 10-day rabies quarantine, I burst into tears.
I was more upset about Buddy being taken away than my painful hand. In between sobs I explained that Buddy was an indoor-only cat and was current on his rabies vaccination, and the officer finally said that I could quarantine Buddy in my apartment. He warned me that I’d be in for a hefty fine if Buddy got out. Ten days later, another officer came by to verify that Buddy was not exhibiting signs of rabies, a deadly disease that he could have transmitted to me.
The word rabies comes from the Latin word rabere, which means “to rage or rave,” since rabid dogs sometimes appear to be angry or in a rage. Rabies is found on every continent except Antarctica, and it’s such a dreaded disease because, in its 4,000 year history, only a handful of people have survived it once they have symptoms. French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur developed the rabies vaccine and successfully treated a human dog-bite victim in 1885.
I am old enough to remember when the human rabies vaccines consisted of a series of painful injections in the stomach. More modern vaccines have decreased the number and pain of the vaccines, which are given to people suspected of rabies exposure. Nowadays, if a person is vaccinated after being bitten by a rabid animal and before symptoms occur, the disease is preventable. Yet, thousands of people die yearly, most commonly from bites from rabid dogs in countries with inadequate public health resources and limited access to preventive treatment.
World Rabies Day was launched by the Global Alliance for Rabies Control in 2007 and serves to raise awareness about rabies, a disease that can be prevented by ensuring adequate animal vaccination and control, educating people at risk and enhancing prompt and appropriate medical care to victims of dog bites. World Rabies Day takes place on Sunday (Sept. 28), in commemoration of Pasteur’s death, and has educated 182 million people and vaccinated 7.7 million dogs in events in 150 countries. You can search rabiesalliance.org to see where a World Rabies Day event is taking place this year.
Before 1960, rabies occurred mostly in domestic animals in the United States. Since then, mandatory vaccination of dogs has largely controlled canine and human rabies. Nowadays the majority of rabies cases in the United States occur in raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, and bats rather than domestic animals. However, most people are given rabies treatment as a result of exposure to domestic animals.
Rabies is now reported in cats more than in any other domestic species in the United States. A contributing factor may be that many communities don’t require rabies vaccination for cats, whereas rabies vaccinations are mandatory for dogs. In addition, although laws prohibit dogs from roaming at large, that’s usually not the case for cats.
Pet cats who are allowed to roam outdoors have a higher risk of contracting rabies because of their increased exposure to wild animals. If another animal bites your cat, take him to the veterinarian right away, and, if the bite was from a stray or wild animal, contact local animal care and control. Your cat will probably have to be quarantined, but you may able to do it at home for a time specified by state law or local ordinance.
Unvaccinated cats who are bitten by an animal with confirmed rabies will be quarantined in a facility for 180 days. Vaccinated cats who are bitten by an animal with confirmed rabies will be quarantined for a shorter period of time. Thus, even where rabies vaccination isn’t mandatory for cats, pet owners should talk to their veterinarians about the advisability of getting their cats vaccinated.
Cats should receive their first rabies vaccination between four and six months of age. A booster is needed one year from that date and revaccination every one to three years depending on state law. In addition to vaccinating your cat and keeping him indoors to minimize his chance of encounters with other animals, don’t feed or water pets outside. Even empty bowls can attract stray and wild animals. Garbage may also attract stray and wild animals, so make sure yours is animal-proof. If you have a bird feeder in your yard, locate it out of reach of other wildlife. And remember, don’t approach wild animals. They could become frightened and bite you if you get too close. If they approach you, seek a safe place.
I haven’t meant to scare you, but rabies should be taken very seriously. I hope you’re more knowledgeable about rabies and how to protect your cat and yourself.
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About the author: Nancy Peterson is a registered veterinary technician and award-winning writer. She joined The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the nation’s largest animal protection organization, in 1998 and is currently the Cat Programs Manager. She lives in Maryland with her cats Luna, adopted from a feline rescue; Toby, adopted from an animal shelter; and Jenny, a feral kitten she fostered. Check out the HSUS cat information at humanesociety.org/cats and humanesociety.org/outdoorcats.