Last week, a North Providence, R.I., neighborhood was on alert because a roaming stray cat died and was diagnosed with the rabies virus. Health officials warned the entire neighborhood they might have been exposed to the cat. The Rhode Island state veterinarian stated that this was a particularly high-risk case because the cat had roamed the neighborhood and may have had contact with pets and children.
Cats typically can harbor the disease without showing signs of it for only 10 days but occasionally can harbor it for up to 80 days before showing signs. Cats can show signs of rabies virus infection for up to two weeks before death. Signs of rabies can be a change in behavior, such as a friendly cat becoming vicious or a mean cat becoming suddenly friendly. Neurologic signs such as irritability, nervousness, poor coordination, seizures and paralysis will occur. Paralysis of the jaw muscles may cause a dropped jaw and profuse salivation. It is always fatal in mammals (including us) once the clinical signs occur.
The rabies virus is highly infectious. It is excreted in the saliva of 50 percent to 90 percent of the infected mammals. The disease is most often transmitted from the bite of an infected animal; the virus can also enter the body through abraded skin. Oral transmission is possible but rare. Respiratory spread is rare but may occur in bat caves when high concentrations of the virus are found in the air.
Urban transmission cycles occur in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. In these cycles, the virus is maintained mainly in the dog population. Sylvatic transmission cycles occur in many countries; foxes, skunks, raccoons, Arctic foxes, raccoon-dogs, meerkats, mongooses, jackals, wolves, vampire bats or insectivorous bats are the host species.
The state veterinarian issued a warning because the Rhode Island cat could have had direct contact with humans via a bite or saliva contact with a wound when it was being petted. It could have had contact or a fight with a domestic cat that was unvaccinated and outdoors. An infected domestic cat could then be harboring the disease and possibly be spreading it to humans.
If you ever see an animal that is displaying signs of rabies, contact your local animal control officer and veterinarian. They will instruct you as to what actions you should take or not take with respect to the animal. You should not try to catch it. You should stay away from it.
State veterinarians make the following recommendations about preventing rabies:
Make sure dogs, cats and ferrets are properly vaccinated against rabies. It is the law.
Avoid all contact with stray, wild or free-roaming domestic animals.
Call the state Department of Health if you have had any contact with a stray, wild or free-roaming domestic animal.
Call your local animal control officer if an animal you own has had contact with a stray, wild or free-roaming domestic animal.
Secure all trash so that animals will not be attracted to it.
Do not feed animals outdoors, as this will attract other animals. This is especially dangerous when feeding large numbers of free-roaming cats.
Do not leave pets outdoors loose or unattended