Adopting Stray Cats: What Could Possibly Go Wrong? (Hint: Rabies)

By Alex Berezow, PhD — Oct 30, 2018
Sometimes, a cute stray animal at your doorstep is carrying something you don't want to cuddle up to.
Credit: Storyblocks

This adventure begins in North Carolina. I'll let the CDC begin: "In early February 2017, two adults traveled from North Carolina to Arkansas with two dogs and 13 cats."

Okay, nothing weird about that. Who doesn't drive a car across eight states with 13 stray cats? The story continues:

"The stray cats (including cat A) were taken in as personal pets while the couple lived in North Carolina. They departed Arkansas on February 17, and arrived in Summit County, Ohio, for temporary residence with family members on February 21."

So, a carload of stray cats travels from North Carolina via Arkansas to Ohio. (I'm sure that was a pleasant road trip for everyone.) The host family was probably less than thrilled with their guests, given that all 13 cats were kept in the garage and not allowed out. Since there probably wasn't much to do, the cats did what came naturally to them, and eventually, "Cat A" gave birth to a litter of kittens. Many of them died.

When the stray cat family grew too large to handle, the owners decided to dump off 15 of them -- including Cat A and four of her kittens -- at a humane shelter in Ohio. Cat A and kitties were adopted, but then promptly returned to the shelter two months later in July. Why? Well, Cat A was acting a little weird, making strange noises, panting, breathing with an open mouth, and behaving agitated. She lost control of her hind limbs.

By July 20, there was nothing that could be done to save Cat A, so she was euthanized. Suspicious of rabies, the shelter chopped her head off and sent it to a lab for testing. The result: Positive.

Don't Take in Stray Animals

Just like with humans, there is a reason that we vaccinate our pets: Scary infectious diseases still lurk out there. They never went away. That's why we should be very careful (i.e., avoid) stray or wild animals. There is no telling what diseases they may be carrying.

Public health officials go to painstaking efforts to block the spread of rabies, spending up to $510 million every year. This viral illness is particularly common on the east coast, so scientists have set up something resembling a biological "blockade" along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Bait containing a rabies vaccine has been scattered around with the hope that raccoons will consume it and get vaccinated. It's surprisingly effective. The Ohio county in which Cat A arrived was previously free of terrestrial rabies*.

Therefore, by transporting unvaccinated, stray cats across state borders, the owners exposed wildlife to an outbreak of rabies. In the 1970s and in 2015, rabid raccoons were transported, both of which resulted in gigantic outbreaks. Public health officials are still dealing with the fallout.

Obviously, such carelessness puts people in danger, too, which is why we also shouldn't transport unvaccinated humans across state lines.

*Note: Terrestrial rabies refers to strains of the virus that spread among land-dwelling animals, such as raccoons, rather than bats.

Source: Singh AJ, Chipman RB, de Fijter S, et al. "Translocation of a Stray Cat Infected with Rabies from North Carolina to a Terrestrial Rabies-Free County in Ohio, 2017." MMWR 67 (42): 1174–1177. Published: 26-Oct-2018. DOI: 10.15585/mmwr.mm6742a2.


Alex Berezow, PhD

Former Vice President of Scientific Communications

Dr. Alex Berezow is a PhD microbiologist, science writer, and public speaker who specializes in the debunking of junk science for the American Council on Science and Health. He is also a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and a featured speaker for The Insight Bureau. Formerly, he was the founding editor of RealClearScience.

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