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No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

By Kim Everson, DVM
Sitting in the clinic refrigerator today is a grim reminder of how dangerous injured and frightened animals can be. 
A neighborhood feral cat shows up with severely injured back limbs, dehydrated and undoubtedly suffering from exposure to the prolonged subzero temperatures. Once coaxed into a travel crate, she is reluctant to leave. When her Good Samaritan tries to remove her from her crate he is bit numerous times — through the heavy work gloves he wears.
Now we have a horribly injured stray cat with no known history of rabies vaccination and serious human exposure risk. When the helpful neighbors bring her in to the clinic for evaluation the situation has changed from one of trying to figure out a way to fix the kitty to making sure her rescuer doesn’t die of rabies infection.
We know the outcome for this poor kitty is not good the moment we peer into the crate. She has extensive degloving injuries on her hind legs where the skin is stripped off the muscle and sags down the limb like loose stockings. The toes on one foot appear crushed. She is severely dehydrated, sadly debilitated. Even with heroic efforts at medical and surgical salvage, her prognosis is grave.
In the best of situations, if a stray kitty bites or scratches a person it needs to be quarantined in an approved facility (like a veterinary clinic or animal control shelter) where it is examined three times by a veterinarian over a 10-day period. If the animal shows symptoms of rabies during this time, it must be euthanized and its brain must be submitted for rabies testing. THERE IS NO OTHER TEST FOR RABIES! If the animal does not show signs of rabies, it will be vaccinated against rabies on day 10 and released.
Shipping a specimen to the state laboratory for testing requires careful attention to very strict packaging instructions.

Knowing what must be done in this terrible situation, but hoping for an alternative, we call the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene and local animal control colleagues for confirmation. The answer is the same from everyone of whom we ask the awful question. The kitty must be put to sleep and her brain must be sent to the state lab for testing.

The Good Samaritans quickly grasp the urgency of the situation. In fact, years ago one of the family members underwent the series of post-exposure prophylactic injections after receiving an injury from an animal that couldn’t be tested. If this stray cat’s test comes back positive for rabies, the person she bit will undergo the series of post-exposure prophylactic injections as well.
While we wait for the results of the rabies test, the bitee will be watching his wounds for sign of infection. Even a non-rabid cat’s bite can create devastating infection requiring heavy duty antibiotics and sometimes hospitalization! Any bite or scratch injury should be immediately and thoroughly washed with soap and water (for 10-15 minutes) to reduce the chance of it becoming infected. 
Some major take home messages from this recent event include:
1) Do not handle an unknown injured animal. Even a beloved and gentle pet may viciously bite out of pain or fear. If you cannot safely approach or handle an injured animal, call local animal control for assistance.
2) Do not release or destroy an animal (wild or domestic) which may have bitten a person. Consult your local animal control or public health department for instructions.
3) Keep your dogs, cats (even indoor only), ferrets and livestock vaccinated against rabies. Doing so limits risk to humans but also protects them against exposure through bats, skunks, foxes, raccoon, etc.
4) Do not handle or make pets out of wild animals–even cute orphaned babies. In many places this type of pet is illegal. Species known to carry rabies may not show any symptoms for a long time, but can put people and pets at risk.
5) Despite the miraculous recovery of Jeanna Giese and a very few others, rabies is still a fatal disease if post-exposure prophylaxis is not sought. If you are concerned about rabies exposure or if a bat is found in a room with a young child or sleeping or mentally incapacitated adult, contact your physician or public health department right away. 
6) According to a July 2013 statement by the World Health Organization, more the 55,000 people die worldwide (primarily Asia and Africa) from rabies, and 40% are children under the age of 15 who were infected by rabid dogs. Mandatory vaccination of dogs in the U.S. after World War II has significantly reduced the number of human deaths from rabies in domestic animals. Post-exposure prophylaxis prevents rabies disease in hundreds of thousands of people each year!

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