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Why must a family pet’s brain be tested for rabies if it bites its owner and then dies?

Tom Grady

Linda Davis holds a picture of her late calico cat Oliver. (Photo By Jeff Janowski/StarNews)

In New Hanover County, a reported case of pet-bites-guardian falls under both state and county regulations. The dog or cat is required to be quarantined for 10 days.

In instances where the pet is up-to-date on rabies and other vaccinations, typically the family has the option of an at-home confinement period. And animal control officers will check on the pet on visits to the home.

If, after the 10-day period, all is well, then all is well. Should the pet die for any reason during the quarantine period, the state of North Carolina requires testing of the brain tissue for rabies.

New Hanover County resident Linda Davis learned of this regulation through a tragedy – the illness and subsequent loss of her cat. And she wants other pet owners to know about the process.

When Oliver the cat became ill last month, Davis decided on an appointment with her veterinarian. Oliver had been throwing up and experiencing a loss of appetite.

On the July 24 trip to the vet, the distressed 11-year-old feline bit Davis on a hand. She went to a local Medac office for treatment when she experienced swelling in the hand.

“That’s when animal control got involved in it,” Davis said, adding she was instructed to quarantine the cat for 10 days.

On July 28, Oliver was taken back in for more testing and was placed in an oxygen tent. When his condition worsened, Davis made the decision the following day to euthanize him.

Davis said he was suffering and “could not breathe on his own.”

Despite the eventual diagnosis of lung cancer and the fact that the cat was up to date on his rabies vaccination, animal control officials sent his head to Raleigh for rabies testing.

New Hanover County Animal Control Services Manager Jean McNeil said North Carolina state regulations and county ordinance directed the actions of her office in this case.

“If an animal dies during the quarantine period, we have to send it for testing,” McNeil said, adding “regardless of reason” for the animal’s death. “If the animal dies and it has bitten somebody and it’s within the 10-day period, by state law and county ordinance, we have to send it for testing.”

Davis said it was a “shock” when she was informed of the regulations and she explained if she had known about them prior to his death, she might have tried to keep him alive for a longer period of time.

“Nobody told me, prior to putting him to sleep, that animal control was going to have to do that,” Davis said. And as of last week, she had not received the result of the testing from the state.

McNeil indicated that if the test had been positive for rabies, a notification would have gone out immediately.

Davis said Oliver was exclusively an indoor cat who slept in a double bed and could not have been exposed to rabies. “This cat was spoiled,” she said. “He drank water out of a faucet. He was part of the family.”

She had Oliver’s remains cremated.

McNeil also noted, within the regulations, the primary determining factors for allowing pets to be confined at home for observation include the vaccination status and whether the animal was under control during the bite incident.

In the case of a dog running loose when it bites, it is typically determined to be a case of owner irresponsibility and the pet in this instance is not allowed to be confined at home.

In these cases and in those where the pet is not up to date on its rabies vaccination, the owner is required to pay for the pet to be confined, either at the animal control shelter, at a veterinary hospital or at an approved kennel.

“Understandably so, it’s a very emotional situation, because it’s your pet,” McNeil said. “For what it’s worth, it’s one of the more difficult issues that we deal with, with our customers.

“We’re just doing what we can to protect the public. Many a person has said that they need to change the law and I can’t tell you I’m in disagreement, but right now the law is not changed and we have to follow it.”

Davis is on the side of changing the law, but for now she wants other pet owners to know about the current regulations, including the fact that if the animal dies within the 10 days, its head will be removed and sent off for testing “even though it’s an inside cat and it’s up to date on its shots and everything.”

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One Response to “ Why must a family pet’s brain be tested for rabies if it bites its owner and then dies?”

  1. On November 12, 2010 at 10:44 am Curious wrote:

    I am aware that all medical facilities are required to report animal bites- that is why animal control had to get involved in this case. What I am curious about is this: did the veterinarian know that the owner was bitten? There should have been a discussion about that prior to the euthanasia. The euthanasia release that the owner signed (or should have signed, unless it was a verbal release) should have clearly stated that the pet had not bitten anyone in the last 10 days.

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