Cats and rabies

I recently read a handout from Alley Cat Allies that recommended a pre-exposure rabies vaccination to anyone who handles wild animals (i.e., feral cats). With a mind geared towards minimizing high-consequence risk, I called around to find out more.

The first thing I learned is that there is a distribution problem with rabies vaccine this year and King County Health reports that they “do not have vaccine available for pre-exposure rabies vaccination”. This is to ensure there is enough vaccine available for post-exposure vaccinations.

I turned to my Group Health primary care provider, and she passed on my inquiry to their infectious disease department who provided detailed information about rabies and vaccinations. I gathered more information from the Center for Disease Control website.

The pre-rabies vaccinations consist of a series of three shots taken on day 1, day 8, and day 22 or 29. This series does not eliminate the need for care should you be bitten by a rabid animal, but it does reduce it. I was quoted a cost of $243 per shot, making this ounce of prevention equal to about $729 at Group Health.

Post-exposure rabies treatment with no pre-exposure vaccination includes one dose of immune globulin and four doses of rabies vaccine over a 14-day period (at an estimated total cost of $2,000). Contrary to popular belief, the shots are not given to the stomach, unless that is where you were bitten.

Either way, that’s a lot of money.

The other bad news is that untreated rabies will kill you, but the really good news is that it is 100% preventable if treated in time (once you start to show symptoms survival is rare).

The rabies virus is transmitted via saliva which means bites are the most likely way to get it, although you might also get it if the cat licked its paw/claws just before scratching you.

So, what do you do if you’ve been deeply scratched or bitten by a cat that has not been vaccinated for rabies? First, consider the situation urgent. Wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water. Do this as soon as possible, and, if at all possible, capture the cat so it can be tested and observed for any signs of illness. Also, contact your doctor to make the determination on whether and when to start rabies treatment.

For the time being, I think I’ll pass on the pre-exposure rabies vaccination. It just feels like too much money. We already have solid procedures in place for moving and feeding the ferals as we prepare them for spay/neuter and vaccination (cats are generally not vaccinated for rabies until they reach four pounds).

Instead of the vaccine, I’ll focus my next bit of research on tracking down a pair of elbow-length scratch proof and bite proof gloves and let you know what I find.

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