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CHARLES TOWN – Leave wild animals alone, and that includes cuddly-looking stray cats you don’t know, advised Patti Richardson, the county health department’s rabies control officer.

“Any animal that’s off the street that you don’t know the history of potentially could have rabies in its system,” she said. “Any outdoor animal could potentially have rabies.”

Four people have been recently treated for the curable rabies virus after having been bitten by an aggressive feral cat with the disease in Charles Town. The cat bites occurred near homes off Mordington Avenue and not far from the Washington Village Apartments off South George Street in Charles Town.

The people bitten weren’t trying to approach the cat involved, which was destroyed during the process to test it for rabies. The cat darted out from under a shed to charge and attack people just walking by, aggressive behavior indicative of a rabies-infected animal suffering in the untreated disease’s last fatal and infectious stage, Richardson said.

“Rabies is in Jefferson County,” she said. “It’s in every county in West Virginia, so it’s not an unusual thing.”

Last year the county health department dealt with six cases of rabies, and Berkeley County handled one case.

Health department officials are asking the neighborhood’s residents to avoid outdoor cats. The residents are also advised to keep their cats and dogs indoors. Household pets everywhere should be kept current on their periodic rabies booster vaccinations, Richardson said.

However, rabies can infect not only cats and dogs and humans from a scratch or bite from another animal, but infections are common in foxes, raccoons, skunks, bats and even groundhogs, Richardson said. Wild animals infected with rabies rarely pose harm to humans because the creatures typically crawl away to an isolated place to die during the infectious end stage of the disease, she pointed out.

Rabies invades an animal’s nervous system. People who become infected with rabies need to be treated before any symptoms appear. When symptoms appear, the disease has reached a person’s brain cells and it’s too late for any medical treatment to save them.

“You will just die,” as Richardson put it matter-of-factly.

One myth Richardson wants to dispel is that the rabies virus will turn every infected animal into a snarling, foaming, biting beast. That’s not necessarily the case, she said.

During the last seven days of an infection that was left untreated and has become terminal, an animal’s usual personality will often change to an opposite extreme, Richardson said. If an infected animal’s nature is normally aggressive and defensive, rabies could turn the animal docile and affectionate.

“People need to realize when they pick up an animal off the street that animal could be acting fine and it could be fine for two or three months,” she explained. “That doesn’t mean that animal does not have rabies. It just means it has not gotten to their brain yet. They’re not in their contagious stage yet.”

A feeding station for a colony of feral cats is maintained in the area as part of a Charles Town government program started in 2018 to humanely control wild cats populations while keeping the animals healthy and safe for people.

Based on cat-control procedures followed in communities across the county, the city program allows certain volunteers to feed the feral cats while providing the cats with vaccinations and providing spay or neuter sterilizing operations to keep the animals from reproducing. The program follows procedures described in brief as “trap, neuter, release,” procedures advocated by several animal welfare groups.

Trap, neuter, release programs for feral cats are not uncommon in Jefferson County, Richardson said. The main goal of the programs is to control and eventually reduce wild cat populations by stopping their prolific breeding cycles, not by killing or starving the animals.

Such programs are humane and usually effective, Richardson said, but a challenge for volunteers involved with them is developing and following a system to determine which particular cats need to have their rabies booster shots and when.

No central registry exists in the county yet to identify the locations of cat colony control programs and who is caring for them, Richardson said.

Richardson pointed out that volunteers who feed those colonies are, by county health code regulation, responsible for the medical care of the cats involved. Most volunteer trap, neuter, release programs, like those in Charles Town, rely on donations to maintain those colonies, some of which could have as many as 50 cats as their numbers are being reduced.

Feeding wild cats as part of a trap, neuter, release program keeps members of the colony near the feeding station, and often less aggressive in hunting birds, said Felicia McDonald, of Inwood, is a volunteer with Cat’s Voice West Virginia.

McDonald has been working with trap, neuter and release efforts to control wild cats in neighborhoods for about 30 years, first in Baltimore, Md., and now in Jefferson and Berkeley counties. Last week she helped three cats in Charles Town undergo get sterilized and vaccinations, and the cats were due to be released back into the Kabletown Road area of Charles Town, with several kittens, after their medical treatment is done.

McDonald said her group is placing microchips the feral cats it cares for to track them and their medical treatment. “So if they’re ever picked up we know that they belong to us and we know that they’re vaccinated and everybody’s healthy before they’re released again,” she said.

Occasionally some kittens in their feral cat program can be successfully adopted by human families through animal rescues, McDonald said. But people should reach out to an animal rescue group to adopt a cat—and leave the fluffy outdoor kittens alone, she added.  

“We know it can happen,” she said of any wild cat contracting rabies.

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