In answering one question, other more interesting questions sometimes emerge. That’s exactly what happened when I followed up on a claim made in “Rabies Prevention and Management of Cats in the Context of Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Release Programmes,” recently published in Zoonoses and Public Health (and critiqued in some detail in my August 3rd post).
As evidence of both the threat of free-roaming cats and the need for lethal roundups, the authors—five from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the other, George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy*—cite a 1992–1996 study of Montgomery County, VA, rabies exposure reports.
“Most striking, a study in Montgomery County, VA, attributed 63 percent of [post-exposure prophylaxis] recommendations to stray cat exposures compared with only 8 percent for wild animal contact. In this community, the high rate of PEP due to cats resulted in part from the lack of a county animal shelter facility for cats, illustrating the need for removal of feral and stray cats as a means of rabies control and PEP reduction.” 
A review of the work cited confirms that, indeed, 24 of 38 exposures requiring PEP (63 percent) over the course of the 55-month study period were related to stray and feral cats.  So far, so good.
But that was 20 years ago. What does Montgomery County look like today?
According to Sep 2011–Aug 2013 data obtained from the Virginia Department of Health data, a lot has changed. Just 13 of 64 exposures requiring PEP (20 percent) were related to cats, while 19 (30 percent) were related to dogs. The other 50 percent were due to exposures associated with wildlife (45 percent from bats alone).
So what’s changed? It’s not clear. But a quick call to Montgomery County Animal Care and Control blew a hole in the theory that “the high rate of PEP due to cats resulted in part from the lack of a county animal shelter facility for cats.”
As it turns out, the shelter still doesn’t accept cats.
So now how to explain the county’s dramatic reduction in cat-related PEP over the past 20 years or so?
A number of factors could have contributed. The Oral Rabies Vaccination Program, for example, designed to “create a barrier to prevent raccoon rabies from spreading further west,” began in 2002. The bait-drop locations were some distance north and west of Montgomery County, though, so it’s tough to say what role the program might have played.
In any case, the more intriguing question for me has little to do with rabies at all. What I want to know is why the authors of “Rabies Prevention and Management of Cats”—one of whom is chief of the CDC’s rabies program—didn’t bother to track down recent PEP data for Montgomery County. Which, as I found out, required just two e-mails and a brief phone call with the Virginia Department of Health.
Or, worse—what if they were aware of the data I obtained, and chose to ignore it?
Both are good questions. The problem is, there’s really not a good answer here, is there?
* Fenwick recently referred to the paper—which he describes rather curiously as a “CDC-led study”—in an op-ed piece designed to mislead the public about the threat posed by free-roaming cats. The deception didn’t end there though, as Fenwick failed to acknowledge his role in the agenda-driven publication.
1. Roebling, A.D., et al., Rabies Prevention and Management of Cats in the Context of Trap–Neuter–Vaccinate–Release Programmes. Zoonoses and Public Health, 2013: p. n/a-n/a. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/zph.12070
2. Hensley, J.A., Potential Rabies Exposures in a Virginia County. Public Health Reports, 1998. 113(May/June): p. 258–262. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1308679/