Nebraska rabies scare is about raccoons not about domestic cats as inferred by the Daily Mail

The Daily Mail online, a paper that I read sometimes and which is normally of good quality, has misrepresented a rabies scare in Nebraska, USA. The way the story has been pitched, it encourages people to believe that a five-week-old tuxedo kitten has started a rabies infection in Nebraska which might spread to other states and which jeopardises the lives of 7 million Americans who are at risk of exposure to this fatal disease. The story is inflammatory and focuses too strongly on cats.

Stanley a kitten who caught a variant of the rabies virus from a raccoon it is believed - in Nebraska, USA.
Stanley a kitten who caught a variant of the rabies virus from a raccoon it is believed – in Nebraska, USA. Picture: Madeline Wahl.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

But as I see it, the starting point of this rabies scare is the raccoon. This stray kitten taken in by a kind couple, Madeline and Rich Wahl, in Omaha, must have caught this rare form of rabies never seen before Nebraska from a raccoon or some other wild animal. It is likely to have been a raccoon because the experts have decided that 1,000 raccoons needed to be vaccinated in the area where the couple live.

It is very hard for the rabies disease to infect people because it requires direct contact between animal and person. Either the body fluids i.e. saliva of the animal need to get into a wound on a person or the animal bites the person and the rabies infected saliva is injected into that person. That’s how they get it. Rabies is very rare in America. It has been successfully suppressed through years of great care in vaccinations. It’s not entirely eliminated but the controls are fierce in America because the disease is inevitably fatal.

The only way a person can get rabies from another person as if they receive an organ or tissue transplant from a person who has been infected. That’s going to be infinitesimally rare.

So, this is about transmission of rabies among wild animals in Nebraska and surrounding states. That’s the problem. This rare variant of the rabies virus has previously been seen in raccoons east of Appalachia but never before seen in Nebraska.

It appears, therefore, that the raccoon acts as the reservoir for this variant of the rabies virus. That’s why the focus is on raccoons and not domestic cats. The fear is that is if many raccoons contract the disease people might be exposed by coming into contact with them. The same by the way can be said about domestic cats allowed outside. Domestic cats are potential victims as much as humans.

RELATED: Why do indoor cats need rabies shots and other vaccinations for contagious diseases?

Doug Hines, a fellow website owner, pointed out to me that he thinks the Daily Mail headline which states, “Kitten sparks huge RABIES scare that could put 7million Americans at risk, after catching virus then scratching and biting 10 people before dying”, might lead to people being frightened of cats and as a consequence some people might kill them while not understanding the underlying issues.

He believes that the headline is irresponsible as it has been republished across the world and it “can potentially cause needless harm to cats everywhere”. I understand his point. That’s why I am writing this article, to protect cats. To try and calm people.

The impact from this kitten – who died of rabies by the way a day after the couple took him to a veterinarian – is only from scratches and bites the kitten may have delivered to people other than the couple who were scratched. I presume that they were vaccinated against the disease and if not, they can take a postexposure prophylactic vaccination and antiviral treatments which are very expensive but effective.

America has great controls against rabies. I am convinced that they will manage this very well. Note: rabies is a zoonosis – a zoonotic disease meaning it is transferable from animal to human. One last point: dogs are far more likely to transmit rabies to people – click this link.

RELATED: The most vulnerable time for a domestic cat is when their owner is away on holiday

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