Rabies and The Law – A Veterinarian’s View
by Karel Carnohan, DVM
As a cat vet, I am presented with the following situation quiet often: Owner brings in his/her indoor/outdoor cat, Fluffy, for wounds incurred while playing unsupervised outdoors. Often there is an abscess. Owner says the cat roams the neighborhood and there are many cats as well as wildlife such as raccoons, skunks and opossums. The owner has no idea what bit the cat.
I cringe as I check the vaccine status of this cat, which we haven’t seen in three years –way past due on rabies vaccine. This is a serious situation for me, as a vet, for the family, and the cat, and for anyone else who comes into contact with the cat, such as my staff.
In North Carolina, the rabies virus is carried by raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats as well as dogs and cats, both indoor-only and outdoor. The rabies virus is spread through the saliva or nervous tissue of an actively infected animal. The species with the highest number of rabies cases, by far, are cats. They are one of the most susceptible species; outdoor, free-roaming cats coming into contact with other cats and wildlife have a VERY high risk of contracting rabies. Rabies can take up to five months for the cat to become sick and infectious. So when Fluffy has an abscess in August and mysteriously becomes sick in December, Fluffy’s family likely will have no idea it is rabies from that bite months ago.
What am I obligated to do when Fluffy comes in? I am morally obligated to treat Fluffy’s abscess – I cannot let a cat suffer. However, I am placing myself and my staff at risk. Now to be fair, if Fluffy was bitten 4 days previously by a rabid animal, there is little chance the rabies has reached the saliva glands and the animal is infectious at that time. But what about sending the cat home with its rabies booster and the family thinking the cat will be okay? If the cat was infected, there is nothing I can feasibly do to cure the cat. The chance that rabies develops is real and I am placing that family at risk.
This is why North Carolina’s Animal Control and Public Health law requires ALL pet mammals to be vaccinated for rabies with a certificate and tag to prove it. Here’s what the law says if you cannot prove the animal that caused the bite is free of rabies:
If a pet is bitten by an unknown animal and is current on its rabies vaccine, the pet is revaccinated within five days and no other action needs to be taken.
If the cat is NOT up-to-date on rabies vaccine, the owner must present the offending (biting) animal for rabies testing. Rabies testing requires that the animal be euthanized and its brain sent to an authorized lab for testing. Public health and animal control authorities can force this. So imagine asking your neighbor if you can euthanize his cat to test it for rabies? Is it feasible to find and euthanize the neighborhood raccoons that hang around?
If you have absolutely no idea what bit your cat, your cat is ASSUMED by law to have been exposed to rabies. The authorities don’t take any chances. Rabies is 100% fatal in humans if not treated immediately.
If the Public Health authorities determine there has been a possible exposure, here are your options if your cat is even one day overdue on its rabies booster:
Euthanize the cat and test it for rabies.
Place the cat in strict quarantine, as dictated by the public health authorities, for SIX MONTHS! Boost the vaccine before it is released.
It has been my experience in North Carolina that the authorities won’t allow a quarantine at home, so this option becomes very expensive. Cat Care had an indoor-only cat who was overdue and caught a bat that flew down the chimney. Unfortunately, the owners didn’t save the bat for testing. They elected to pay for a six month quarantine at the clinic to save their cat.
Here’s the dilemma: As a responsible citizen and human being, I am supposed to report any possible rabies exposure to the public health authorities. In Fluffy’s case, the authorities would enforce the law and Fluffy would likely be euthanized. Do you see the horrible position in which clients place themselves, their cat and their veterinarian when they don’t keep their pet’s rabies vaccinations up to date? If the veterinary community and the public authorities don’t take enforcement of the law very seriously, we would place everyone at risk of contracting a fatal disease.
So I wish everyone would keep their pets’ rabies vaccines up-to-date – even for indoor-only kitties. If you have an outdoor cat, be sure to schedule your cat’s booster ONE MONTH prior to its due date. Why? North Carolina does not consider your cat vaccinated until 28 days AFTER his shot!
I would love it if everyone would make their cats indoor cats or build outdoor “catios” – safe, outdoor enclosures that keep cats in and raccoon, foxes and skunks out.
Cat Care Clinic of Asheville cares about you, your family and your cat. Please talk to us about scheduling a rabies vaccine if your cat is overdue.
After a long career in finance, Dr. Carnohan returned to school and graduated from the Kansas State College of Veterinary Medicine at the tender age of 50. She bought the Cat Care Clinic of Asheville in August 2013.