MEXICO, Maine — State veterinarian Donald Hoenig said Wednesday that he considers cats the most dangerous rabies carrier of Maine’s species.
“I’ve never seen a rabid cat, but I remember somebody saying when I was in veterinary school, there’s nothing more dangerous than a rabid cat, because they can expose a lot of people and a lot of animals in a short period of time, because they get so aggressive before they become comatose and die,” he said.
That’s why he praised the actions of Becky McDonald, president of the River Valley Animal Advocates, for recognizing the symptoms in a caged Mexico cat captured on Oct. 6 and taking it to Norway veterinarian Don McLean, who euthanized it Oct. 14.
On Oct. 7, McLean spayed the Mexico cat, named Tough Mommy by her rescuers, and McDonald took it to her Canton home. There, she kept it caged and away from other cats and animals.
A few days later, Tough Mommy suddenly started acting aggressively, attacking anything that neared her cage, McDonald said.
She said the cat then got “really sick with neurological symptoms that led us to believe she had problems. Fortunately, no one was bitten and no one was scratched.”
They believe the cat was attacked by a rabid raccoon in August where it lived in Mexico near the Dixfield town line.
On Aug. 8 in Dixfield, a bat described as acting abnormally while inside a Dixfield family’s house tested positive for rabies.
McDonald and the Animal Advocates took the cat’s body to the Maine Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory in Augusta.
“Fortunately, they were on the ball and recognized something seriously wrong with this cat and submitted it, and minimized the exposure, although I don’t know whether anybody got treated over that or not,” Hoenig said.
McDonald said that as a precaution, she underwent the full rabies shot treatment on Wednesday, “just to be on the safe side, and [she] will have two more shots before I’m done.”
“It’s very scary when you first encounter it and are wrapping your brain around it,” she said.
Last year, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued a rabies alert after a feral cat tested positive for rabies on July 12 in Lewiston. It was the first and only cat to test positive for rabies in Maine that year.
Hoenig said that in 2009, Oxford County had the lone cat testing positive for rabies. There were none in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2008; three cats in 2001 and 2007; and one in 2004.
“We had a high in ’06 where we actually had a spike overall in rabies cases of 128 cases, but six of them were cats, so that was kind of an anomaly,” he said.
“It’s not uncommon to have cats be positive in rabies and I think they kind of run the gamut from the kind of cats that haven’t been vaccinated.”
Maine has two types of rabies: bat rabies, which Hoenig said has been here a long while, and, since 1994, the North American raccoon strain of rabies that moved up from Virginia.
“There were some coon hunters that illegally moved raccoons from Florida into Virginia in the mid ’70s,” he said. Since then, the raccoon strain took 20 years to reach Maine in 1994.
“It really has been devastating,” he said.
Four years later, Maine peaked at almost 250 cases of rabies.
“Now we average probably 50 to 60 positive cases a year, predominantly being raccoons, and then skunks, and then bats and other species,” he said.
“Probably cats tangle up with raccoons most often or a bat, you know, a bat that’s sick. They’ll get it and play with it and maybe get bitten by the bat. Bats have needle-like teeth.”
As of Oct. 17, Maine has had five bats, one bobcat, two cats, nine foxes, one horse, 27 raccoons, one sheep and nine skunks test positive for rabies.
At 16, Cumberland County has the most cases, followed by Oxford County with seven, Hoenig said.
“We do get the occasional horse, so rabies is alive and well in Maine and folks should make sure their animals are up to date on vaccinations,” he said.
As of Oct. 5, 54 cases of animals testing positive this year for rabies have been identified in 12 of Maine’s 16 counties, according to Hoenig.
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