When three Wilkes-Barre residents were bitten by a rabid cat earlier this month, the occurrence seemed a bit odd.
Usually, rabies cases are associated with raccoons, bats and skunks. But according to Pennsylvania Game Commission figures, cats account for the fourth-highest number of rabies cases in the state — behind raccoons, bats and skunks.
“Cats are pretty prone to it,” said Bill Williams, the PGC’s information and education supervisor for the Northeast Region. “If they’re allowed to roam lose, there’s a higher probability that they’ll contract it. The risk is also raised when people feed stray cats, because that attracts skunks and raccoons as well, and congregates them all so contact is common.”
Wildlife Conservation Officer Gerald Kapral, whose district includes the Wilkes-Barre area, said skunks and raccoons trigger most of the calls he gets concerning possible rabies cases. Considering most of the rabies calls come from urban areas, Kapral suspects there are more feral cats at risk of contracting rabies.
“There are so many feral cats out there that, sooner or later, they’re going to come in contact with a rabid animal,” Kapral said. “I’m surprised we don’t see more of it.”
Locally, rabies cases in wild animals aren’t as prevalent as in the southeast and western parts of the state, where there is more urban area. In 2012, Luzerne County only had two positive rabies tests — a cat and a skunk. Allegheny and York counties had the most with 24, followed by Chester with 23 and Centre with 18.
Still, that doesn’t mean the PGC doesn’t get many rabies calls from residents in the northeast. Williams said the calls peak in the spring and summer.
Kapral said he could get five calls a week and then nothing for a month. Most of the time, he said, a call about an animal acting strangely doesn’t turn out to be a rabies case.
“It could have another disease with similar symptoms or it could be displaying mating behavior,” Kapral said. “People see a skunk out in daytime and think it has rabies, but this is the time of year then they are mating and acting at odd times.”
WCO Dave Allen said a lot of his potential rabies cases turn out to be animals with distemper or conjunctivitis — an eye infection.
“The last animal I had test positive was a groundhog about seven years ago. It was in Freeland and bit a person’s foot,” Allen said. “With any of these rabies calls, there’s no way to tell if it has the disease unless the animal is euthanized and tested.”
Williams said the agency tests animals only if they have come into contact with people or pets. Typical signs that something may be amiss with a wild animal include being active during the day, acting lethargic and tipping over, aggressiveness or submissiveness or spinning in circles. Foaming at the mouth, Williams said, isn’t an identifying behavior for rabies.
“That’s a television thing,” he said.
If an animal didn’t come into contact with a person or pet, the PGC doesn’t bother to test it because they already know that rabies can be present anywhere, Williams said. There is no need to test animals just to determine the range of the disease.
The best course of action, Williams added, is to simply avoid picking up wildlife and call the Game Commission (675-1143) if you do see an animal displaying signs that it may be sick.
“As wildlife start to have their young in the spring, people tend to pick them up thinking they’re abandoned and they get an emotional attachment to that animal,” Williams said. “They don’t feel there’s any threat, but we still have to look at the seriousness of the rabies disease and the potential that exists because there was contact.”