Local lifestyle columnists

When a rabies scare hits home

By From page D4 | March 16, 2014

If everything you know about rabies comes from watching reruns of “Old Yeller,” it’s time for a refresher course.

I was forced to learn more when a friend called me in distress last summer. She had been trapping feral cats for a spay-and-release program, when one ungrateful wild thing latched onto her finger, giving her one terrific bite before disappearing.

At first she didn’t think much about it. She washed her hands and put on a bandage. A lifelong cat lover, she had weathered her share of bites and scratches. But when she delivered the other captured cats to her local vet, they urged her to get to an emergency room right away.

Still unconvinced, she waited another day until her finger started to change color. When she finally got to a Sacramento hospital’s emergency department, she faced a decision. Rabies is fatal, so it is better to be safe than sorry – or in this case, possibly dead. So in the course of a week, she underwent a series of rabies shots – the first ones administered right into her damaged finger. I can’t repeat her description of the pain, so use your imagination.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year an estimated 40,000 persons receive a rabies preventive treatment called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) due to a potential exposure to rabies. And while most cases of rabies are found in wild animals, the majority of people in the United States receive PEP after close contact with a domestic animal.

Before my friend’s incident, I had only thought of rabies in the context of pet vaccinations, which seem due almost as often as taxes. But having your dogs and cats vaccinated against rabies, as required by law, is the best way to prevent the spread of the disease. Thanks to our vaccination laws, it is exposure to wild animals such as raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats that pose the largest threat in the U.S. A vaccinated pet that mixes it up with a skunk probably won’t bring the disease home to his owners. Your unvaccinated pet, however, if suspected of exposure to rabies, can be quarantined for six months, or even euthanized.

No one should take rabies lightly. It is a dangerous virus spread through the saliva of animals. All mammals, including humans, can get it. It is one of the few viruses that cross the boundary of species. And although it is rare for a human in the U.S. to die of rabies, it is a global health problem that kills more than 55,000 people worldwide every year.

How can you protect yourself and your family from rabies? In addition to vaccinating your pets, avoid contact with wild animals. If you are bitten, wash the wound well with soap and water and see your doctor. You may also be required to contact animal control.

My friend no longer traps feral cats. She has made a complete recovery, and her only reminder of her brush with death is when I ask if she’s wearing her rabies tags.

Marilyn Ranson is a public relations specialist with NorthBay Healthcare in Fairfield, which is a partner of the Solano Coalition for Better Health.

Marilyn Ranson


Discussion | 4 comments

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  • LilMarch 16, 2014 - 9:31 am

    My little 8 year old nephew was recently bit by a cat. It was in their backyard but they hadn't seen the cat before and it was probably a stray. Within hours, the bite started swelling up so he was taken to emergency and put on antibiotics and received his first rabies shot. He has two more in the series. We now call him Rabies Boy. Just so glad that he received medical attention and his parents didn't just brush off the bite. Alternatives could have been awful.

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  • JimboMarch 16, 2014 - 11:34 pm

    The rabies shot for a cat bite was way overboard. All that is needed are prescribed antibiotics and an up to date tetanus shot. Cat bites can be dangerous both to other animals and to humans. In their mouths, all cats carry a large number of bacteria that are capable of causing tissue infections in bite wounds. One of the more common is highly pathogenic bacterium known as Pasteurella multocida. An infected cat bite wound will be red, swollen and painful, and the infection can spread through the surrounding tissues, causing a condition called cellulitis, or through the blood to other areas of the body, causing a condition called septicemia (often called "blood poisoning"). Infected people may suffer from fever and flu-like symptoms and, rarely, may die if proper medical treatment is not sought. Children, the elderly, ill and immunosuppressed individuals are particularly vulnerable to developing severe infections if bitten by a cat.

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  • woodsman001March 19, 2014 - 1:58 am

    Someone is keeping their brains in a dark place. You are 4 times more likely to get rabies from any stray cat today than from a dog bite. In fact, the prevalence of rabies in all the free-roaming cats today makes getting post-exposure rabies shots after a cat-scratch or bite mandatory in most localities. This is why the CDC has issued warnings to cease and desist with all those failed and highly illegal TNR (trap, neuter, re-abandon) programs that all the cat-ladies are trying to practice in their communities. They don't understand that giving a rabies shot to a cat that already has rabies does not cure it of rabies. Many rabid cats have been adopted direct from shelters that took cats in from unknown living conditions with an unknown exposure to the rabies virus. (The gestation period for rabies being 21 to 240 days, sometimes up to 11 months. The cat, after vetted, can transmit rabies many months later during the last 2 weeks before it dies of rabies. Sometimes not even showing any symptoms up to its death.) The families who adopted those rabid wild-harvested cats that were adopted out by shelters then end-up in financial ruin due to all the medical expenses and the mandatory 6-month state-monitored quarantines for all their other previously owned pets. ANY cat harvested from outdoors without a previously known vaccination history or unknown exposure to rabies MUST, by national and international law, be quarantined for a MINIMUM of 6-months in a state-monitored double-walled enclosure before it can be considered relatively safe to be around any other domesticated pets or humans. Then and only then can you be relatively certain that giving it a rabies vaccination might prevent it from getting and transmitting rabies in the future. To tell someone that they shouldn't get a rabies shot after any cat bite today makes you criminally negligent and criminally irresponsible, just like those TNR fools. People could die from your ignorance.

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  • JimboMarch 16, 2014 - 11:43 pm

    Rabies does not manifest itself as at the bite location as swelling or what is described in this article AT ALL. The first symptoms of rabies may be very similar to those of the flu including general weakness or discomfort, fever, or headache. These symptoms may last for days. There may be also discomfort or a prickling or itching sensation at the site of bite, progressing within days to symptoms of cerebral dysfunction, anxiety, confusion, agitation. As the disease progresses, the person may experience delirium, abnormal behavior, hallucinations, and insomnia.

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