Veterinarian says kitten treated in Townsend had rabies

TOWNSEND — Thirteen people, including four children, are undergoing post-exposure treatment after tests on a kitten that died Monday came back positive for rabies.

Dr. Theresa Ford, a veterinarian at Bay Animal Hospital in Townsend, said Friday the first treatments began Thursday.

The Delaware Division of Public Health verified Friday afternoon the kitten had rabies and those who had contact with it are undergoing post exposure prophylaxis.

The feral kitten was found July 18 by a homeowner doing yard work on Bay View Road, east of Middletown.
He was weed-whacking, Dr. Ford said, and saw the tiny kitten in the grass just in the nick of time.

The kitten likely was only a few weeks old, Dr. Ford estimated, and the homeowner, who is a client of Bay Animal Hospital, took the rescued animal there for help.

The kitten had an upper respiratory infection, and was infested with ticks, Dr. Ford said. The hospital’s owner, Dr. Kim Gicker, and staff bottle-fed the kitten.

“It was doing well, gaining weight,” Dr. Ford said of the kitten when the family took it home. “It was playing, running up and down the stairs.”

But on Saturday the homeowner contacted the hospital because the kitten had started “acting weak.” By Sunday evening it was much worse and died Monday morning.

“Certainly it looked like it was a big enough kitten that it could have taken care of itself,” Dr. Ford said.

However, her radar went up when she learned the kitten over the weekend would “lose its back end and knuckle on its front legs,” implying a neurological problem.

The rabies virus infects the central nervous system,

The kitten’s remains were sent to the Delaware Division of Public Health’s laboratory where tests verified rabies, Dr. Ford said.

Six members of the family who had contact with the kitten, plus seven people at Bay Animal Hospital are undergoing treatment for rabies exposure, according to Dr. Ford. Treatment consists of injections in the arm muscles.

Standard treatment, according to the Delaware Health and Human Services website, depends on whether a person has been vaccinated previously. Dr. Ford said she has been. She received a booster shot Thursday and will need one more.

People not vaccinated receive a series of five shots over a period of two weeks.

Friday morning, Dr. Ford said she was feeling “better, but a little scary.”

Her biggest concern now is what happened to the kitten’s mother and litter mates. The average litter is three to five kittens, according to www.vetinfo.com.

“More kittens are out there,” Dr. Ford said. “What happened to them? What happened to the mom?”
And did they come in contact with humans?

She emphasized that animals with rabies can take as long as six months to show symptoms.

Left untreated, rabies is fatal.

Wild animals most likely to carry rabies are raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes, with the raccoon being the most common carrier in Delaware, according to the Division of Health website.

The virus usually is spread via the infected animal’s saliva through a bite or a scratch.

However, “it does not have to a fully blown bite,” Dr. Ford said.

Conceivably, a person could touch their eyes or mouths after being in contact with an infected animal’s lick, she said. The state’s website said that is much less common than skin puncture transmission.

State officials said Friday afternoon there have been seven confirmed cases of rabies, including the kitten, below the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal this year. A raccoon from Sussex County also tested positive for the rabies virus this week.

“The exposure period for this kitten was between Aug. 1 to Aug. 10, during which time it was kept indoors,” said Public Health spokeswoman Andrea Wojcik in an email Friday afternoon.

“DPH does not believe there is an elevated risk to the general public because of this.”

In 2014, the state tested 143 animals for the rabies virus with nine coming back positive. Two were in New Castle County, three in Kent and four in Sussex.

So far in 2015, Ms. Wojcik said 67 animals have been tested. Two in New Castle were positive, including this week’s kitten. Kent has had one positive case and Sussex five.

People with questions about the state’s rabies virus program can call (302) 744-4995.

Warning signs

As for how this kitten came to have rabies, it likely contracted the virus through contact with the mother cat, litter mates or a wild animal, Ms. Wojcik said.

She urged people to be aware of abnormal behavior in animals:

• Daytime activity in normally nocturnal animals;
• Wild animals approaching humans or other animals;
• Animals having difficulty walking or moving.

“Some rabid animals may be very aggressive while others may be very weak and have excessive salivation,” she said.

People should stay away, and also keep their pets away, from animals exhibiting unusual behavior.

What to do

The Division of Public Health also made the following recommendations to avoid contracting the virus:

• Do not feed stray animals.

• Never handle wild animals, including sick, injured or dead ones.

• If you wake up in a room and a bat is present, seek medical attention even if it doesn’t appear to have bitten or scratched you. Call the Public Health Office of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at (888) 295-5156. The state suggested that if possible, you should trap the bat for testing.

• If bitten by an animal, place the wound under running tap water and then clean it thoroughly using soap for about five minutes. Antiseptic can be applied afterward. Seek medical attention immediately.

Ms. Wojcik said children should be taught to never approach or handle wild animals or even stranger domestic animals. Children also shouldn’t be left unattended with animals.

Finally, pet owners should ensure their animals vaccinations are up-to-date.

As Dr. Ford said, animals without proof of vaccination that bite a human or have an unexplained wound will need to be placed in a quarantine and monitored for rabies symptoms.

“We have to be careful with any bite,” Dr. Ford said. “Watch for anything strange.

“In veterinary school we were taught ‘think rabies first.’”

Despite that instruction, however, Dr. Ford said rabies is not that common.

“This is my second case in 40 years of practice.”

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