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Rabies Cases Among Cats on the Rise

September 16, 2009

While reported cases of rabies in the United States dropped in 2008, veterinarians and public health officials warn that an increase in the number of reported cases in cats poses a health risk to both animals and people.

There were 6,841 reported cases of animal rabies in the United States and Puerto Rico in 2008, according to a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and published in the Sept. 15, 2009, edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The number represents a 3.1 percent decrease from the 7,060 rabies cases in animals reported to the CDC in 2007. There were two cases of rabies in humans in 2008, up from one case reported in 2007.

According to the CDC report, rabies continues to affect wildlife much more than it does domestic animals. Wild animals, especially raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes, accounted for 93 percent of all rabies cases reported in 2008, the report states.

More work needs to be done, however, when it comes to controlling rabies in pets, especially cats and dogs. Cats led the list of domestic animals with reported cases of rabies in 2008. According to the CDC report, there were 294 reported cases of rabies in cats last year, up about 12 percent from the 262 reported cases in 2007. Dog-related cases totaled 75 in 2008, down from 93 in 2007.

Jesse Blanton, an epidemiologist at the CDC, said cats have more interaction with wildlife, where they are prone to being bitten by a rabid animal, and they aren’t getting the vaccinations they need.

"The CDC’s general belief is that people are doing a good job vaccinating their dogs, but not their cats,” Blanton said. "We have controlled canine rabies through the vaccination of domestic dogs, so we know that vaccinating works.”

The belief that cats aren’t getting their necessary shots is supported by data from an American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) report that indicates 36.3 percent of U.S. cat-owning households did not visit a veterinarian in 2006. In contrast, the report, "U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook,” indicates that 17.3 percent of dog-owning households did not visit a veterinarian in 2006.

The simple act of vaccinating a pet, Blanton said, provides protection to the animal and the humans with whom it may come in contact. Veterinarians can vaccinate dogs and cats, and they will advise clients on the recommended or required frequency of vaccination needed.

Rabies remains a threat worldwide, killing more than 55,000 people every year, according to the World Health Organization. The release of the CDC report comes at an opportune time for continued public education, as World Rabies Day is approaching on Sept. 28. World Rabies Day, now in its third year, aims to raise awareness about the public health impact of human and animal rabies. For more information on World Rabies Day, visit the AVMA’s World Rabies Day Web page.

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