Rabid Cats and Bats

One afternoon, I heard voices in our foyer so I walked downstairs to see who was there. I found a man breathlessly telling my wife about one of our cats attacking his daughter. I thought his story unlikely as the cat in question had occasionally bolted from the room after suddenly spotting its own shadow. I sat down on the stairs as the man continued a frantic monologue about how the cat might have rabies. I calmly reassured him that the cat had been vaccinated (it was wearing a collar and a rabies tag), and told him no one in Maryland had contracted rabies in more than a quarter of a century and that last unfortunate individual got it from a bat. But in the end, the cat got quarantined, the man subjected himself and his daughter to a needless series of rabies vaccinations, and I got a lesson in the power of fear to overwhelm common sense. (If anything he probably should have been worried about Cat Scratch Disease, but that’s another story.) Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the central nervous system. It is horrible way to die. Until 1885, when Louis Pasteur gave us a way to prevent rabies with a crude vaccine, the bite of a rabid animal was a death sentence. It still is if a rabies infection goes untreated or undetected. But in the Western World, pets are seldom the source of human rabies cases. According to the disease experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Georgia, there are only one or two cases of human rabies in the U.S. each year. In Maryland, raccoons are the most frequent carriers of the rabies virus. Skunks, foxes, bats, cats and groundhogs are the other major carriers. Cats are high on the list because their owners neglect to have them vaccinated and they get bit by wild, rabid animals.

Rabies The raccoon’s claim to fame comes from giving other animals—including unvaccinated pets—rabies. They are nocturnal animals so we seldom see them and therefore people seldom get rabies directly from them. (Last spring, a Virginia man proved the exception to the rule by being the first person in the state to die of raccoon rabies. No one knows how or when he came in contact with a raccoon.) Worried about the spread of large numbers of rabid raccoons, pubic health officials in Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont and West Virginia have been air-dropping rabies vaccine since 1997. The vaccine is contained in tiny plastic sacks hidden in cubes of fishmeal, which are then dropped from low-flying planes.

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It’s an air war designed to create a population of rabies-free raccoons, which will act as a barrier to the spread of rabies. Think of these immune raccoons as the bricks in a furry Berlin Wall thirty miles wide. It seems to be working. According to the Maryland Wildlife Services in Annapolis, cases of animal rabies in Anne Arundel County (where I live) dropped from 97 in 1997 to 18 in 2003. But when it comes to aerial combat, the bat may have us beat. Most of the human rabies cases recorded by the CDC during 1990-2000 were from bats. Unlike raccoons, we can’t bomb them with vaccine-filled baits so they remain a dangerous source of rabies. Just how dangerous is evident from a case described by two veterinarians from Maryland’s Center for Veterinary Public Health. Two years ago, Drs. Beth Karp and Clifford Johnson examined a house-bound cat that was dying of rabies. The owner said the cat was old and never went outside. She saw no reason to keep up the cat’s rabies vaccinations. After all, if the cat never went out, how could it possibly get rabies? Well, from a bat that got into the house.

Rabies Three months after the bat got inside, the cat developed obvious neurological symptoms and behavior changes, and eventually attacked its owner. The cat had to be destroyed and the woman had to get the standard five rabies vaccinations and a dose of anti-rabies immunoglobulin. “This case demonstrates the need to continue to educate the public about the risk of rabies associated with bats and emphasizes the importance of keeping all dogs and cats current on their rabies vaccinations,” wrote Dr. Karp. Maryland requires all dogs, cats and ferret owners to have their animals vaccinated and boosted on schedule. The typical vaccine costs $5.00 and a booster shot is required every twothree years. Pet owners and people wanting to learn more about rabies and bat-proofing their

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homes can find information online at: www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvrd/rabies, or by calling Maryland’s Epidemiology and Disease Control Program at 410-767-5300.