Cat bites shelter worker. What to do?

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?

Cat bites shelter worker. What to do?
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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.

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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….


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.

Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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23 Responses

  1. Curious Cat says:

    Since the incubation period for rabies is anywhere from 21 to 240 days how does a 10-day holding period prove that any unknown cat doesn’t have rabies? It can have live rabies virus in its body and not be infectious to others for over 8 months. One rare documented case proved the rabid animal was carrying rabies for over 3 years before it became infectious to others and then died from it.

    You mistake the 10-days before an animal dies from rabies, and during which it can transmit the virus to others, with an animal actually having rabies or not. A 10-day holding period can only be used to save a person from getting rabies shots if the animal doesn’t die during those 10 days. A rabid animal is only able to transmit rabies during the last 10 days of its life before it dies from it. But 10-days being symptom-free in no way proves an animal is still not carrying and will eventually spread rabies to others and then die from it.

    Do you understand the difference?

    • Michael Broad says:

      Yes, but why aren’t you addressing this to CDC:

      ” No person in the United States has ever contracted rabies from a dog, cat or ferret held in quarantine for 10 days.”

      You say:

      “A 10-day holding period can only be used to save a person from getting rabies shots if the animal doesn’t die during those 10 days…”

      So if the cat does not die people are safe? And if he dies the problem is solved. Is that correct?

      • Curious Cat says:

        A rabid animal is ONLY infectious to other animals and people during the last 10 days of its life. Even though the rabies virus can be incubating in their systems for up-to and over 8 months. This is why there is the international LAW agreement to quarantine any animal for 6-months (a time-frame just beyond the peak in the rabies incubation curve) when being transported to another place and it cannot be 100% proved to be rabies-free. A 6-month quarantine is still not safe, it’s just “safer” through statistics of probability.

        What the CDC states is correct, a human cannot become infected by the bite or scratch of a rabid animal if it doesn’t show symptoms or die during that 10-day quarantine. But if it goes on living, without knowing if it is rabid or not, someone bitten or scratched even 1 or 2 days after that 10-day quarantine can then die from rabies.

        And no, people and other animals are NOT safe if the cat does not show symptoms or die during that 10-days. That animal can still be harboring rabies and then kill other animals and humans if it bites or scratches someone else even 1 day after that precautionary quarantine. You’d have to start the precautionary 10-day quarantine all over again.

        If a cat with an unknown rabies vaccination history (has no legal vaccination-history papers) bites or scratches a human or other animal, that cat, by law, must be quarantined in a government-supervised double-walled containment system for no less than 6 months to be relatively certain it is rabies free. At the average cost of $1,000 per month. Any animals that that suspected cat also came in contact with must also then be quarantined for no less than 6 months at those costs. Some homeowners have had to go into bankruptcy just to save the lives of their own pet cats that came in contact with a cat having an unknown rabies vaccination and rabies exposure history to pay for quarantining their own pet cats after the event. The only other option is to have them all euthanized and tested for rabies.

        Let me know if you understand yet how rabies works and why the laws in place are required–to save not only human lives, but the lives of healthy and loved pets of any responsible pet-owners.

        While the UK has not had to deal with the rabies issue for many decades, it is alive and well in countries where they still have most of their native wildlife species (unlike the UK that have driven most of their native wildlife to extinction). Just hope that your pet cats aren’t turning rabid bats, that have been blown across the borders, into their next play-toy. It is only a matter of time, with people relaxing animal-import/exportation and quarantine laws, and all cat-owners widely and wildly spreading disease misinformation on the internet, where you too will be reminded of why these laws in the US were created, and remain in place, to save lives–animal and human.

        • Michael Broad says:

          Thank you for your extensive comment. I do understand it. The article is about how shelters deal with matters when a cat bites or scratches, so to return to that it seems to me that the question for shelter management is whether to euthanize a cat or hold the cat for 10 days. The latter must be the proper procedure. And it appears to be the accepted procedure. If shelter management euthanize a cat with an unknown history under these circumstances it would seem to be out of fear of the consequences of rabies together with a less than concerning attitude towards the lives of rescue animals due to the number of rescue cats and dogs at most shelters. A sloppy approach it might be fair to say particularly as most often when cats in shelters bite it is because of the predicament in which they find themselves and possible mishandling by shelter workers.

          • Curious Cat says:

            (typos corrected)

            You seem to be forgetting something. Yes, they can hold the cat for 10-days observation to see if the person bitten or scratched must now pay out of their own pockets for rabies shots, often in excess of $5,000 for the required treatment to save their own lives. But the shelter or veterinarian is not off the liability-hook after that. They still have a cat that they don’t know if it has rabies or not, and it has already proved to be aggressive. They can’t just let it go into the community or into the hands of someone else and risk that cat having rabies and biting someone again during the last 10-days of its life when it IS infectious. Anyone bitten or scratched by that cat in the future can then deeply sue the person responsible for releasing that cat if that cat does this again and they later find out that it does have rabies. (This is also why most all communities enacting TNR policies will only do so if the TNR caretakers assume legal liability for their cats or have enough liability insurance. They know there’s a very real risk of their cats being rabid and biting people. It’s already happened and been reported in the news, many times.)

            Do you think a shelter or veterinarian can afford the average $6,000 per cat to quarantine it for the legally required 6-months each time someone brings in a cat that scratched or bit someone? If you don’t want undocumented cats being euthanized that bite or scratch, then I suggest you start a fund-raiser every time you hear of such a situation and offer to pay the $6,000+ to have that cat go through the legally required 6-month quarantine to save its life. If you can’t do that then you have no excuse to justify complaining about those that can’t afford to do what you won’t do either.

            • Michael Broad says:

              You paint a very bleak picture. When a cat bites a shelter worker they have to initiate a formal process but every year in America I am sure that around a million people are bitten by their cat or someone else’s. Nothing is said and nothing is done and no one died of rabies.Perhaps you might know whether it is obligatory for shelter workers to be vaccinated against rabies. If not why why is it not obligatory? Also, how effective have the vaccination programs beem for cats and other domestic animals in America? It is a shame that domestic cats in shelters are seen as potentially rabid if they bite somebody. I understand the need to be hyper-cautious but the chance of a cay biting somebody in a shelter is much higher than normal because of handling issues and cats becoming fearful of strange surroundings.

              • Curious Cat says:

                Those people don’t die of rabies because over 13,000 people per year (for EACH of the last 28 YEARS) are forced to get post-exposure rabies shots after being scratched or bitten by a stray cat with unknown rabies vaccination histories, to save each human’s life from cat-transmitted rabies. Documentation of this is readily available on CDC’s website if you want proof.

                Rabies vaccination programs for stray and feral cats are not usually being formally and legally documented or they fail to give the stray cat a required booster shot. This is why just a few months ago a TNR cat that was vaccinated against rabies, even had its ear clipped, yet attacked someone and that cat was later found to be infected with rabies, as well as being in the infectious stage of rabies. Giving a 1-shot vaccination to a cat that already has rabies does nothing to cure a cat of rabies that it already has nor prevent it from transmitting rabies to others. They’d have to give a cat the same $5,000+ post-exposure rabies vaccination regimen that they use on humans to try to cure it of, and save it dying from, being infected with live rabies. In late stage rabies even that is usually ineffective.

                It doesn’t matter if the cat bites someone in a shelter or out on the streets. A cat bite, now being the #1 cause of rabies transmission to humans out of all domesticated animal species in the USA (over 3 times higher than rabies in dogs today), that is cause and reason enough to take life-saving precautions in each and every case when a cat bite or scratch is involved. And to also follow the euthanize or quarantine for 6-months laws.

                • Michael Broad says:

                  “A cat bite, now being the #1 cause of rabies transmission to humans out of all domesticated animal species in the USA”

                  But I think you need to compare the transmission of rabies by domestic cats to the transmission of rabies by wild species of animal which as you know is far higher. In fact domestic cats are infected by rabies from wild animals. If you want to blame an animal blame the wild animals such as bats and foxes which infect domestic cats outside. Relatively speaking, and you know this, there are very few incidents of domestic cats transmitting rabies to people. It is a rare incident but I agree one needs to take precautions that all times.

                  • Curious Cat says:

                    People and their children don’t generally run up to a cute and cuddly bat or cute and cuddly badger to pet it, try to pick it up, and bring it home. The threat to humans is greater from cats just due to their misinformed perception that stray cats are a safe and disease-free animal to be around.

                    Yes, wild animals spread rabies more than cats, but that gap is closing rapidly due to all the rabid stray cats today. Should we kill all our wildlife to save the lives of cats? Just like you are doing in the UK. Where the only “wildlife” left on earth is just house-cats? That is a death-sentence for the human race and everything else on earth, all plant species included because plants depend on native wildlife for their reproduction and propagation. We depend on those wild animals to keep the food-chain alive. Without them, you nor your cats would even be here.

                    Pick another thoughtless deflection, that one isn’t going to work.

                    13,000 cats tested for rabies causing 13,000 rabies vaccinations in humans PER YEAR is not a rare incident. It is precisely because of people like you downplaying the issue as to why it’s now only a short matter of time until the UK is devastated by a rabies epidemic of great proportions. You are especially ripe for this outbreak due to your fondness for cats and people declaring that even rabid cats shouldn’t be killed (just as you have done over and over again).

                    Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

                    Enjoy your rabies, it’s getting closer and closer to your very door. Try to hug and cuddle it when it meows wanting to be let in. It’s so CUTE! Isn’t it.

                    • Michael Broad says:

                      I take your point but I do not think that it is true that people walk up to stray cats to try and pet them unless they are clearly domesticated. Anyway most domestic cats and certainly feral cats do not allow people to walk up to them when they are outside. All genuine feral cats will back off and avoid people. Which is one reason why they are less likely to transmit diseases to people.

                      You say that the gap is closing with respect to the spread of rabies by stray cats. Once again you cannot make those sorts of remarks without supporting them with hard scientific evidence. And I don’t want a whole list of horrible links which do not actually support your argument. Provide one link and it must link to a proper scientific paper which directly supports your argument.

                      You go on to say that in the UK we are killing all our wildlife to save the lives of cats. That of course is complete bullshit and you know it. Really you can come out with the most unholy rubbish.

                      You then say that humans are facing Armageddon because we are killing wildlife to save cats. Another example of pure BS.

                      I’m not downplaying the issue about rabies. I know it is very serious. I am simply discussing in the article how shelters should relate to it. That is a valid discussion. Please do not distort what I’m saying.

                      I’m not saying that rabid cats should not be killed. Where did you get that idea from?

                      I think this conversation must be terminated because of your unreasonableness and your inability to remain polite. You have to be polite to me because you are on my website; that is something you consistently fail to remember.

  2. Cat's Meow says:

    I agree that is wrong!

    In a similar situation, my very reliable vet did a lot of research and found much contrasting information. As a result, I was told that rabies can remain dormant for months or years and that the 10 days waiting period is a joke. Many times, the animal has not had enough time for the virus to reach his brain and cause symptoms.

    My heart breaks for those innocent lives caught in the middle.❤

    • Michael Broad says:

      Yes, that’s a good point you make about the research that your veterinarian did on rabies and how it can lie dormant. There is conflicting or unclear information on the Internet which is why I think shelter management make different decisions. However, CDC say that the 10 day waiting period works in that there been no rabies infections if the 10 day waiting period is clear.

      “No person in the United States has ever contracted rabies from a dog, cat or ferret held in quarantine for 10 days.” (CDC)

      • Cat's Meow says:

        Thank you. ? It must be a little different if the pet is known to have come in contact with an animal that supposedly tests positive. My personal opinion is that many of the people who are in charge of analyzing possibly infected animals do not really perform the test and lie about the results.

  3. Michele Massa says:

    Do not understand why it is not mandated by the state that shelter workers be pre rabies vaccinated similar to health workers who work with humans being required by the state to have certain vaccinations. This would eliminate any fears and save lives both human and feline. This freaks me out as a cat owner. What if my cat went missing and she got scared and bit someone at the shelter after being turned in? I may be too late to save her, I can only pray she would not be immediately turned in as I have a collar with ID tag on her and she is chipped. Either the finder will call me first or the shelter will call me after scanning her chip.

    • Michael Broad says:

      It would freak me out as well just as you say. It just takes a certain chain of events to happen and within quite a short space of time your cat could be dead, euthanised at the local shelter despite being completely healthy and loved tremendously. There is a weakness in the system which allows for a discretionary decision to be made by shelter management. These decisions vary in my opinion because the policies in place are not robust enough to ensure that everybody across the USA follows the same policy. I would like to see federal policy on it but that may not be practical some reason or other. It should be clear, straightforward and 100% complied with.

  4. NO!

    This is wrong. Putting a rabid cat to sleep is one thing because it’s going to die anyway and is suffering. It’s mercy killing. But if the cat is healthy, why not keep it for ten days observation?

    It shouldn’t be left for the shelter to decide. It should be illegal to kill a healthy cat, even if it’s a feral and unfriendly, that’s still no reason to kill it.

    And fear of rabies is no excuse. If the cat is in ten days observation, there’s no risk of rabies. A vet will know if the cat shows signs of rabies or not.

    • Michael Broad says:

      Agreed and thanks. It was wrong. It happens.

      • Albert Schepis says:

        I’m pretty sure I told this story here before, but I had brought a cat to the emergency animal hospital (on a Sunday) as she was in dire need. I rescued her off the street but knew where she came from. I’d already had her in to my usual vet who found no chip and we were under a 30 wait for ownership rights. While I was in the waiting room the vet told me the cat bit her, and that they wanted to euthanise her. I said absolutely not, to which she said well, we’re going to anyway! And that’s what happened. They distressed a dying, gentle old cat who “might” have bit. They said it was during intubation, so… duh! That’s the risk you take, you don’t punish the cat for that, and by the attitude of the vet, that was she did. She didn’t like me either, especially when I fought her on this. I was helpless, except that I fought a little more and complained to the state veterinary board, who took her side. This is the only photo I have of “Aubrey”.

        • Albert Schepis says:

          I did ask to see the bite, and she showed me a little red dot on the end of her finger. I wouldn’t jump at the chance to kill an animal, especially a pet and there’s an alternative.

        • Michael Broad says:

          I don’t recall the story, Albert. It is a very sad one. That would really upset me and I’m sure that it upset you very much. There is a problem, the way I see it, with cats biting shelter workers, on how to deal with it. The whole area is very problematic because the cause of the bite may be mishandling together with the strange environment et cetera. This should not indicate potential rabies. It should indicate that the cat is frightened but of course I understand that rabies is fatal and therefore there has to be very stringent requirements. It is a very difficult area and it leads to unnecessary death but as we know it is very hard to argue against these failures (as I see them) in shelter management.

    • Susan Gort says:

      I agree!!! When I was working in the vet field, I NEVER said “The cat (or dog) bit me. It scratched me. Since I was the one interacting with the animal, no one could prove one way or another if I was bitten or scratched. That ploy worked for my entire working life. I never had a cat (or dog)scratch get infected and I never went to the doctor or hospital. And I’m still alive and kicking. If any animal shows signs of rabies during the 10 day period, then for its sake, it needs to do over The Bridge. But almost all of the time an animal bites it’s from fear or anger.

      • Michael Broad says:

        Thanks Susan and well said. Brilliant and very sensible. Some people are more scared than you.

      • Albert Schepis says:

        Thank you for saying so. I also think the fear of or likelihood of getting rabies way out of whack to the probability. Not every animal has to be killed and tested on the spot, as they never freaking have it.

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