Anyone who has lost a pet to rabies knows how important it is to make sure cats and dogs are vaccinated against the deadly virus and receive the required booster shots.

We know of a LaVale resident who learned the hard way when his dog was euthanized after it was attacked by a rabid raccoon in his yard several years ago. The canine was bitten repeatedly after the wild animal dropped out of a tree onto its back. Acting quickly, a neighbor shot and killed the raccoon and subsequent testing showed it was infected. The dog was put down since the owner was unable to find paperwork showing that it was current on inoculations and didn’t want to quarantine the badly injured pet.

Garrett County recorded its fourth case of rabies this year recently — a barn cat in the Oakland area.

The local health department said property owners noticed the feral feline had suffered facial injuries and managed to catch the animal after trying for two weeks. The cat was treated by a local veterinarian and displayed mild neurological symptoms before it died.

Fortunately, the property owners had no direct exposure and did not require treatment.

Human rabies cases are few and far between, with an online search showing an average of only two per year in the U.S. Rabies in domestic pets average 400 to 500 annually.

Public health experts have offered the following information:

• The disease, which can infect any warm-blooded animal, affects the central nervous system. There is no cure for rabies, and it is almost always fatal. Once clinical signs occur, an infected animal usually dies within five days.

• The most common rabies carriers in the U.S. are raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes.

• The only way to test for rabies is by examination of the brain tissue of a dead animal. There is no way to test for rabies infection in a live animal.

• Rabies virus is spread by contact with the saliva of an infected animal. Transmission is usually through a bite wound, but the disease has been known to spread through a scratch or an existing open wound.

• The incubation period — the period of time between exposure to a disease and the onset of clinical signs — for rabies can vary greatly. The typical incubation period is three to eight weeks, but it can be as little as nine days or as long as several years in some rare cases.

• An infected animal can only transmit rabies after the onset of clinical signs.

• If a pet is exposed to a wild animal, do not handle the pet within two hours after contact. If it is necessary, wear gloves and wash hands thoroughly with soap and water immediately after contact. If bitten by a wild animal that cannot be captured or if exposed to an animal suspected of having rabies, seek medical treatment immediately.

• The early signs of rabies typically include behavioral changes — the animal may appear anxious, aggressive or more friendly than normal.

• As the disease progresses, animals develop hypersensitivity to light and sound. They may also have seizures and/or become extremely vicious.

• The final stage of rabies is typified by paralysis of the nerves that control the head and throat — the animal will hypersalivate and lose the ability to swallow. As the paralysis progresses, the animal eventually goes into respiratory failure and dies.

Although the rabid cat in Garrett County was a feral creature, it is still a legal requirement that all cats, dogs and ferrets be vaccinated against rabies. Vaccination is necessary after 4 months of age but can take place as early as 12 weeks.

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