Rabid cat stirs concerns in Dagsboro area

Residents around Dagsboro got a disturbing automated phone call last week — one warning them of a rabid cat.

The tan-and-orange cat was found dead near Deer Run near Iron Branch Road in Dagsboro after scratching at least one person. People were encouraged to call the Department of Health Rabies program if they believed they had been scratched or bitten, and also to contact their health-care provider.

About seven people reportedly required treatment after having come into contact with the infected cat, and the incident pushed local officials to warn residents of the potential danger.

Heidi Truschel-Light of the Delaware Department of Health said that, after the cat’s remains were found, they tested the animal for rabies, and the test results confirmed that he cat was rabid. The decision was made to call people in the immediate geographical area to warn them they might be at risk from exposure to the infected animal.

“We made the decision to call to be sure it hadn’t circulated around more people after the lab results were confirmed,” she said.

She said that, in 2008, of 253 tests performed on animals, there were 19 confirmed cases of rabies – six in New Castle County, seven in Kent and six in Sussex. Of the Sussex cases, four were cats and two were raccoons.

Police officials in local towns often receive calls from citizens when animals are suspected to be infected with rabies.

Chief Floyd Toomey of the Dagsboro Police Department said his department was not called to handle this particular case, but he said their normal procedure when receiving a report of a possibly rabid animal would be to try to isolate the animal and contact the SPCA, if they are available.

Truschel-Light agreed that the first call people should make in that circumstance is to the SPCA, citing the ideal of capturing an animal alive so that it can be determined whether the animal is sick from rabies. She warned that a gunshot wound to the head from police putting an animal down might make it impossible for officials to test the animal for rabies, as tests are done on the animal’s brain.

That would require everyone who was exposed to the animal to undergo treatment for rabies – which, while less intensive than it once was, still involves a course of injections.

Still, when the SPCA is unable to respond, Toomey said the police would take immediate action, if needed.

“If they are not available, we would have to destroy it,” said Toomey. “Public safety’s first.”

Regardless of who ends up handling the situation, citizens are being encouraged not to deal with such an animal themselves but to call either the SPCA or their local police department, so they can handle the animal properly.

According to the Delaware Department of Health’s rabies program, signs of a rabid animal include daytime activity in a normally nocturnal animal (such as a raccoon), wild animals approaching people or other animals, and the animal having difficulty walking or moving. Some animals can be very aggressive, while others show signs of weakness and can have excessive salivation – the classic “foaming at the mouth.”

“Rabies is an infectious disease that affects the nervous system,” noted Truschel-Light.

“Humans and animals can get infected from a bite or scratch that breaks the skin or if saliva from an infected animal gets into the eyes, nose, mouth or an opening in the skin,” she continued.

“Rabies is always present across Delaware,” Truschel-Light emphasized. “Residents should always take precautions against rabies by avoiding wild animals and ensuring their pets’ rabies shot are updated.”

People are encouraged to call 1-888-352-7722 to report stray dogs and cats.