One morning about five years ago a stray cat appeared, starved, on our front porch. He was desperately thin, with a rangy coat; he had an anxious look in his eyes. The first thought I had was that he must be incredibly hungry. So, I ran for a can of cat food, but, for some reason, he wouldn’t come near the dish. This was one frightened cat. That’s when I decided to offer him a small dollop of food from the end of my fingers. He looked at me, searched for an escape route, and backed slowly away—very leery. But I was a good human, I thought. I had to show him I was not like all the other humans he has likely come across in his life.
This was a young cat—a teenaged, skeletal-skinny feline. He trusted no human. I lowered my eyes, crouched down to his level, and held out my hand with the food low enough so that he didn’t feel threatened.
Suddenly he leaped at my fingers, grabbed the spoonful of food and with it a good chunk of my hand. I stood up, howling. In his frantic attempt to get the food, he had accidentally bitten my hand. I went inside, stopped the bleeding, and put on a band-aid.
Later in the afternoon I went searching for the cat. There, behind the house underneath a hemlock it lay dead. I scooped him up in a shovel and buried him in the woods. Poor thing—hadn’t had much of a life.
I looked at my hand and wondered.
“No. I’m certain he didn’t have rabies,” I said to my usually calm doctor. “Well, I don’t know for sure, but he was just so starved, he accidentally bit me. Yeah, I know it wasn’t the smartest thing for me to do.”
In minutes everyone around me--husband, parents, doctors—were freaking out. They were worried I might have rabies. I assured them the stray was just emaciated and hungry, that he didn’t appear to be rabid, and that it was my fault for doing a stupid thing like trying to feed him from my fingers.
My doctor talked to Edgar, and, together, they decided I should dig up the cat’s body, cut off the head, and send it to a lab to be tested.
“Where did you bury the cat?” Edgar said, a shovel in his hand. I knew what he was about to do, and I didn’t want the poor cat’s body being dug up and then decapitated.
“I’m not telling you,” I said firmly.
An argument ensued, one in which I was given a choice: send away the cat’s head or go through the series of rabies shots—those awful ones they give in the belly or something. I said, “Well, you’re not going to find the cat cause I’m not telling you, so I guess I’ll have to get the shots.”
“I can’t believe you!” my husband said.
“Yeah, well. That cat was just emaciated, maybe sick with something else. I don’t think he was rabid. But we’re not digging him up.”
So, off to the hospital we went. I was escorted to a chair within the ER, and the nurses and doctors stared at me and talked behind their masks as though I had some sort of pox or something. I stared back: they didn’t understand country life, me, or struggling felines thrown out on the street to fend for themselves. They didn’t know I was certain I hadn’t been bitten by a rabid cat. Let them stare and gossip—I didn’t care.
In a few minutes I had the first of probably around thirteen or so after-exposure anti-rabies injections—in the arms, not the belly. They were no different than allergy injections—didn’t hurt, no reactions. The worst part was the driving time to get the shot.
I never did get rabies, but my stubbornness could’ve taken my life.
Today, several years after this event, I read an article about rabies. I’ve summarized the most important facts here. These facts aren’t the usual hysterical advice garnered through the Internet. These facts have been gathered by the American Veterinary Medical Association. I’m going to keep this list salient and short.
Rabies is a virus that attacks the nerves, and then the brain of an infected animal. It is usually transmitted by a bite. One rarely can get the disease simply from having an open wound contacting a rabid animal’s saliva.
Only mammals get rabies. Birds, fish, reptiles amphibians do not. The main rabies carriers are skunks, raccoons, bats, coyotes, and foxes. The reason cats are the most risky of the domestic animals is because most cat owners usually don’t vaccinate their cats for rabies. After the cat, rabies occurs next in dogs and cattle but rarely in horses, goats, sheep, swine, and ferrets.
Rabies vaccines are available for cats, dogs, ferrets, horses, cattle, and sheep. And wildlife can be given oral vaccine.
Signs of rabies in dogs, cats, ferrets: fear, aggressive behavior, massive drooling, difficulty swallowing, staggering, and seizures.
Humans are not at high risk if they vaccinate their animals, stay out of the way of suspicious-looking wildlife, and, if bitten, submit to the rabies series treatment.
Steps to take in dealing with rabies:
Get dogs, cats, ferrets, horses, and livestock vaccinated.
Avoid letting unvaccinated animals roam free. Let unvaccinated pets enjoy playtime outside that is supervised, caged, and spay and neuter pets to prevent roaming.
Pick up garbage and other foods lying around outside—foods that may attract raccoons and other wild animals.
Don’t go near a nocturnal wild animal who is exhibiting strange, erratic behavior during the day. Call the game commissioner.
If someone is bitten by a suspicious-acting unvaccinated domestic pet or a strangely-behaving wild animal, see a physician as soon as possible, and follow his or her advice. That advice will probably be to go through the treatment program for rabies, the injections of which—from my standpoint—were no different than having a bunch of flu shots. If the animal who bit someone is a pet, officials will likely just order home quarantine for ten days.
The most significant thing anyone can do to avoid another’s contracting rabies is to vaccinate pets and livestock.