The scenario in America is not uncommon. A healthy domestic cat enters a shelter. For some reason, and we never know the circumstances, the cat bites or scratches a shelter worker. The cat carries no identification. There is no history. The cat is unknown to the shelter for whatever reason. There is no doubt that the cat is a domestic cat because his behavior indicates socialization and friendliness around people. And there is no doubt that the cat looks healthy.
What to do? Does the shelter euthanize the cat immediately in order to test the cat for rabies? A rabies test is carried out on a cat’s brain and therefore the cat has to be killed before the test can take place. Or does the shelter hold the cat for 5 to 10 days in confinement for observation?
Under the circumstances, it would appear that the policy is to notify the local health department immediately and provide the name and address of the person bitten. The potential for rabies exposure and case management is then overseen and directed by the local health department. The department has a discretion to deal with the matter but, as I understand it, the normal procedure is to confine the cat for 10 days and observe for signs of rabies. If the animal becomes ill during the ten-day confinement, at the discretion of the local health department, they may euthanize the animal and test for rabies. This procedure is also stated by CDC.
In Minnesota it would seem that a private organization running a rescue operation can do as they see fit to protect their staff and volunteers. This would give the green light to euthanize the cat without holding him for a 10 day observation.
A spokesperson for the Minnesota Federated Humane Societies said that that is incorrect and just like Animal Control a rescue organization has to hold the animal for 5 to 10 days. If the animal is physically suffering and beyond cure as assessed by a licensed veterinarian then it can be euthanized.
Also in Minnesota, impounded animals that have bitten humans may be euthanized and tested for rabies before the five day period has elapsed if demanded by the Department of Health. This is obviously a discretionary decision. What I mean is the cat may or may not be euthanized. If the cat looks healthy and domesticated it would be unreasonable to the euthanize her without a standard 10 day observation.
The point that I’m getting at is there are two courses of action when a cat bites shelter worker as an animal shelter, (1) the cat is euthanized and tested for rabies in order to protect the workers or (2) the cat is confined for 10 days for observation for rabies. In addition the local health department is notified.
It is difficult to find a very clearly defined answer using the Internet as a research tool. Obviously, in the USA what happens depends upon the laws of the state concerned. As far as I can tell there is no federal law on the subject. There appears to be a grey area were discretion can be used by the local health department. I do not think that a shelter has the discretion but there are stories of shelter management making decisions unilaterally to euthanize cats under these circumstances without criticism from the local authority. Is there a lack of clarity among shelter managers?
The decision to euthanize can be a tragedy if the cat was a beloved companion and for some unfortunate reason he found his way to a shelter where he was frightened and/or mishandled and bit or scratched in defensive mode which in effect ended his life.
The decision-making processes is complicated by the large number of cats passing through shelters, the pressure on shelter management, the fear of rabies which is fatal to humans and what appears to be a grey area in the rules which allows discretion to euthanize by shelter management when a cat bites.
I welcome the input of others but….
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P.S. This page may be updated and amended as necessary when further information comes to light.
Sources as stated and Virginia Recommended Pet Shelter Bite Protocol.