Rabies is a serious concern in Pa.

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Rabid raccoons are the biggest problem in Pa., but feral cats are a growing concern. (Jay Karr/MCT/File)

The memo from state health officials went out last month to some Pennsylvania veterinarians. The news about rabies, it said, was "not good."

For the third straight year, Pennsylvania will likely top all other states in reported cases of rabies in domestic animals. Through November, the state reported 70 cases, surpassing its 2009 total of 65.

"I am fairly sure our title will be held for a third year running of most rabid domestic animals in the U.S.," a regional veterinarian with the state's Department of Agriculture said in the memo.

Furthermore, Pennsylvania reported 312 cases of rabies in wild animals through November, compared with 388 in all of 2009. Final 2010 totals are expected later this month.

Rabies remains a "significant public health problem," according to the state health department, despite measures ranging from pet vaccinations to baited packets dropped from planes intended for wild raccoons.

Rabid raccoons are the biggest problem, but feral cats are also a growing concern. In 2009, New Jersey reported 268 cases of rabies in wild animals and 20 in domestic animals - all cats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But numbers can be deceiving.

"The more you test, the more likely you are to find it," said Tony LaBarbera, a veterinarian with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

The testing is done not only by state agencies but also by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is trying to prevent the westward spread of rabies from Pennsylvania and other states.

That's why a slice of the $300 million or so that the government spends yearly to prevent and control the disease is devoted to vaccinating the creatures in the wild.

In 2001, USDA Wildlife Services began delivering an oral vaccine to wild raccoons contained in packets laced with fish meal.

Some of the packets are about the size of a fast-food ketchup serving; others, a 9-volt battery. The vaccine is stuffed in the center of the packet and delivered to spots frequented by raccoons. In rural areas, packets are dropped from planes or helicopters; near human population centers, the packets are tossed from cars or boats.

The vaccination program extends from Maine through the westernmost counties of Pennsylvania, into West Virginia and as far south as Alabama.

"Everything east of that line, we have raccoon rabies; everything west, there is not a documented case," said Harris Glass, director of USDA Wildlife Services in Pennsylvania. He said the largest baiting effort on the ground was in Allegheny County.

One bit of good news: Cases of reported rabies in the counties bordering Ohio have dropped as a result of the program.

A viral disease that attacks the central nervous system, rabies is spread by a bite or contact with the saliva of an infected animal. The disease was once most prevalent in dogs, but since 1975, the CDC says, about 80 percent of reported cases of rabies have been in wild animals - about a third of those in raccoons.

And feral cats have replaced dogs as the domestic animal most commonly diagnosed with rabies - the same strain most often seen in raccoons.

In Pennsylvania, 57 of the 65 rabid domestic animals reported in 2009 were cats. Rabies was also found in dogs, cows, and captive deer, according to state officials.

Untreated, the disease is almost always fatal in humans and kills more than 55,000 people around the world each year. In 2009, 6,690 rabid animals were reported in the United States and Puerto Rico. Four people contracted rabies; three died. The fourth, a 17-year-old Texas girl bitten by a bat months earlier, survived.

Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey require rabies vaccinations for all cats and dogs. Local health departments and animal shelters can provide information on available low-cost or free vaccination clinics.

Besides vaccinating, to control the spread of rabies the CDC recommends that pets be spayed or neutered; that animals be kept under direct supervision and not be allowed to roam; and that any stray or ill animals be reported to animal-control officials. Anyone bitten or scratched by an animal should seek immediate medical advice.

Unvaccinated feral cats increase the potential for more cases of rabies, officials said.

Stephen Ostroff, the state Health Department's acting physician general, said: "The more bleeding-over we have into domestic populations, whether feral cats or the occasional cow, all have consequences for people."

 


Contact staff writer Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149 or mschaefer@phillynews.com.