Cat Tests Positive for Rabies, Unleashing a Clown Car of Crazies

If you’re reading this from Hillsborough County, Florida, I hope it’s from the safety of an underground bunker—while you await the movers’ arrival. You need to get out while you still can because—well, you know… rabid cats.

As local “investigative reporter” Steve Andrews put it in one of three melodramatic pieces on the subject, “It’s rabies roulette in Hillsborough County.” Actually, journalistic Jenga is more like it. But that’s Andrews in a nutshell: half used-car salesman, half ambulance-chaser. And, as he’s made clear through his previous “reporting,” also hell-bent on shutting down TNR efforts in the area.

Unfortunately, the local news media isn’t the only source of misinformation and scaremongering. Read more

New Research Challenges Alleged Links Between Cat Ownership and Mental Illness

Writing last week for Scientific American, Yale School of Medicine research fellow Jack Turban waded into the controversy surrounding cat ownership, Toxoplasma gondii, and the parasite’s alleged role in mental illness—asking (and answering) the question, “are cats really to blame for psychotic behavior?” As it turns out, not so much.*

“In the largest and best-controlled study to date, the researchers showed that those exposed to cats were at no increased risk of psychosis after controlling for a number of other variables (including ethnicity, social class, and dog ownership—to control for exposure to animal stool).”

But wait—what about all those scary headlines…? Read more

When Public Relations Compromises Public Health

If you missed the Orange County Vector Control District’s press release, announcing last year’s dramatic decrease in flea-borne typhus cases, you’re not alone. Apparently, the agency’s commitment to “inform and educate the public about the shared responsibility of vector control” is no match for their commitment to link the area’s typhus cases to outdoor cats almost exclusively.

So, while some of us think the most recent statistics are newsworthy, OCVCD probably sees them largely as a most inconvenient truth. How, for example, does the agency explain the significant decline in typhus cases over the same period Orange County Animal Care implemented its return-to-field program? OCVCD has alleged repeatedly that this program increases the risk to the public—but the evidence suggests otherwise.

Well, I suppose that’s why there’s no press release. Read more

Hawaiian Monk Seals: The Latest Excuse for Toxo Hysteria?

Hawaiian monk seal at Five Fathom Pinnacle, Hawaii. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and N3kt0n.

The latest “black mark against domestic cats,” explained a headline in yesterday’s Washington Post: “They’re killing Hawaii’s rare monk seals.” As is so often the case, though, in the age of click-bait journalism, the story is considerably more complicated than the misleading headline suggests. Read more

Toxo “Hype Train” Running Out of Steam?

Recent research is challenging the “conventional wisdom” that infection with the Toxoplasma gondii parasite can alter human behavior, lead to mental illness (especially schizophrenia). As a recent post on Discover magazine’s Neuroskeptic blog notes, “The idea of ‘behavioral’ toxoplasmosis has driven a huge amount of research and media interest.”

Of course, it’s also driven the witch-hunt against outdoor cats—used by the American Bird Conservancy and others in their ongoing campaign of misinformation and scaremongering. Read more

“The Science Points to Cats”? Not so Fast!

Mother sea otter with pup, photographed at Morro Rock, CA. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and “Mike” Michael L. Baird.

“The science points to cats,” proclaimed David Jessup (long-time opponent of TNR) and Melissa Miller in their contribution to the Spring 2011 Issue of The Wildlife Professional, in a special section called “The Impact of Free Ranging Cats” (available free via issuu.com). As I explained at the time, it wasn’t science so much as certain scientists pointing to cats as the primary cause of California sea otter mortalities associated with Toxoplasma gondii infection.

And now, a study recently published in the International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife goes much further in challenging the scapegoating. Read more

Rabies in Cats Continues to Decline

Well, this must be awkward—for some, anyhow. In particular, the people who continue to overstate the threat of rabies, leveraging whatever fear they can muster in their ongoing campaign to undermine community cat programs and TNR efforts.

Awkward or not, though, it’s a fact: the number of cats testing positive for rabies in the U.S. declined for the second year in a row.

The 2013 data, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published November 15th in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association, show a decline of 10 cases (3.9 percent) from the 257 cases reported in 2012—which represented a rather dramatic decline of 15.2 percent from 2011’s total of 303 cases. Read more

American Bird Conservancy Fails Statistics 101

For those of you who might have missed my letter to The Baltimore Sun, published Saturday in response to a recently published letter by Grant Sizemore, Director of Invasive Species Programs for the American Bird Conservancy, here it is as it appeared in Saturday’s paper: Read more

Lapse of Memory or Lapse of Reason?

Less than two weeks after American Bird Conservancy president George Fenwick explained in the Washington Post Magazine his organization’s position that killing cats is a moral imperative, ABC is giving a nudge to those who might be reluctant to get on board. “‘Remarkable’ deterioration in memory functions of seniors infected by common parasite found in free-roaming cats,” declared a press release issued yesterday.

Interestingly, the headline is far more accurate than ABC probably intended. Far more accurate than the rest of the release, to be sure—and more accurate than what the authors of the study suggest at times (and then contradict at other times), too. The findings reveal an association between Toxoplasma gondii infection in seniors subject to a “test battery for measuring memory functions” [1] and certain of those memory functions.

However, no causal relationship was found. Read more

Montgomery County, VA: Then and Now

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.” [1]

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. [2] So far, so good. Read more

CDC Doing the American Bird Conservancy’s Bidding?

Representatives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sign on to the American Bird Conservancy’s witch-hunt against free-roaming cats, misrepresenting the relevant science to support their claim that “rabies transmission via feral cats is a particular concern.”

“Feral cat populations,” argue the authors of a recently published paper, “must be reduced and eliminated to manage the public health risk of rabies transmission.” [1] Their solution? “Traditional animal control policies [that] have stressed stray animal control and removal.”

It’s no surprise, given the American Bird Conservancy’s contribution (president George Fenwick is among the paper’s seven co-authors, and Steve Holmer, Bird Conservation Alliance director, is thanked in the acknowledgments for his “review and input during the writing of the manuscript”) that the article provides no evidence whatsoever of such policies and practices reducing the risk of rabies posed by free-roaming cats.

Witch-hunts, after all, have little use for evidence.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Agriculture, representatives of which make up the paper’s other six co-authors,* rely on solid evidence to develop sound public policy.**

Don’t they?

To borrow a line from Ernest HemingwayIsn’t it pretty to think so?

Read more

Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation’s Appeal for Support

I almost feel sorry for Don Thompson and his colleagues at the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation. After all, it can’t be easy to recruit others in the local veterinary community when you’re essentially asking them to alienate themselves from a large segment of their clientele—and the public in general. The sharp distinction that HAHF draws between pet cats (which, presumably, are to receive top-notch vet services) and unowned cats (the vast majority of which are, apparently, to be rounded up and killed) is simply incomprehensible to many (most?) people.

Ignoring “Science and Fact”

In an e-newsletter sent out yesterday (with the headline Why the Veterinary Community is Needed!) from HAHF and the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society, Thompson and his colleagues tried to rally the troops by going after Sherry Silk, executive director of the Tampa Bay Humane Society. This, in response to her recent opinion piece in Florida Voices defending TNR.

“Ms. Silk’s letter demonstrates the need for the local veterinary community to be involved in ongoing county discussions regarding animal issues,” reads the unsigned appeal from HAHF/HCVMS. “As the director of HSTB Ms. Silk continues to ignore science and fact, even while the Humane Society has a prominent role in formulating county animal policies.”

So now Thompson & Co. have “science and fact” on their side? Hardly.

One obvious sign: their newsletter repeats the now-standard drivel about Kerrie Anne Loyd’s Kitty Cam research: all the alarmist, out-of-context, meaningless “results” and no mention of the fact that 55 cats—observed for a total of about 2,000 hours—were responsible for killing just five birds. (There is, not surprisingly, also a link to the American Bird Conservancy’s August 6 press release about the Kitty Cam study. So much for “science and fact.”)

I don’t want to speak for Silk, but can’t help responding to the question posed by HAHF/HCVMS: Is the video evidence insufficient for Ms. Silk?

Yes, the video (from which, to my knowledge, only still images have been made public) is insufficient—to anybody familiar with the research and with the larger issues involved. Indeed, as I’ve pointed out previously, Loyd herself found the evidence less than compelling, admitting to CBS Atlanta in an interview earlier this year: “Cats aren’t as bad as biologists thought.” [1]

Not the sort of “science and fact” Thompson & Co. care for, I guess.

Rabies and “Cat Attacks”

Like ABC, HAHF/HCVMS continues its scaremongering about rabies. Although I addressed the topic in detail in Part 2 of my original HAHF series—and again last week—it’s worth revisiting the subject in light of some of the claims being made by HAHF/HCVMS.

There were, explain Thompson & Co. in yesterday’s newsletter, “455 cat attacks in Florida in 2010, the last year data is available.” But, as the Florida Department of Health report from which this figure was taken explains, this is a reference to the number of “possible exposure cases.”

“Rabies [post-exposure prophylaxis] is recommended when an individual is bitten, scratched, or has mucous membrane or fresh wound contact with the saliva or nervous tissue of a laboratory-confirmed rabid animal, or a suspected rabid animal that is not available for testing.” [2]

Multiple “possible exposure cases” can result from interaction with a single animal—whether confirmed rabid or merely suspected of being rabid. If, as HAHF/HCVMS claims, there were, on average, nearly nine “cat attacks” in the state every week for all of 2010, one would expect to see hundreds of related news stories. A quick check of 38 Florida newspapers reveals a relative handful.

It’s true, as HAHF points out (more or less) on its website, that 2010 PEP incidents were up 41 percent over the previous five-year average. But, as the Florida DOH report explains:

“This increase in PEP may be due to improved reporting, increased exposures to possible rabid animals, increased inappropriate or unnecessary use of PEP, or a combination of factors. Reductions in state and local resources may contribute to increases in inappropriate or unnecessary use of PEP by decreasing resources to investigate animal exposures and confirm animal health status, and by reducing county health department staff time to provide regular rabies PEP education for health care providers.” [2]

But there’s another factor related to the “unnecessary use of PEP,” which occurs, according to a study of “11 geographically diverse [across the U.S.] university-affiliated, urban emergency departments” [3] in about 40 percent of the cases documented: “media hysteria.” [4] Make no mistake: HAHF/HCVMS, with their ongoing campaign of scaremongering, is becoming part of the problem. As if to prove the point, there’s this from their newsletter:

“The reason there have been no human rabies cases from feral cats is because we use rabies vaccines in the event of bites! 30,000 people got Rabies shots in 2010 in the U.S. to prevent Rabies—but according to Ms. Silk the bites from cat attacks are not a concern?  Should we skip the shots and see what happens? Rabies is 100 percent fatal! Fifteen feral cats were proven to have rabies in Florida in 2010—is it worth gambling a child’s life to see if the number of cat-to-human rabies increases?”

Ah, yes—I’d almost forgotten: this is all about protecting the children. And how will a ban on TNR and the feeding of outdoor cats make those children safer?

If HAHF/HCVMS get their way, the threat of rabies will only increase (along with the number of unowned cats in the community, and the number of cats killed by Hillsborough County Animal Services—which has an abysmal track record as it is). And yet, they have the gall to accuse Silk of “faulty logic” for defending TNR (and close their newsletter with the arrogant assertion: “It is obvious our leadership is badly needed in Hillsborough County.”).

•     •     •

The timing of the HAHF/HCVMS newsletter was hardly accidental. Just two days earlier was the first meeting of a taskforce charged, as Ian Hallett, director of Hillsborough County Animal Services, described in an August 7 memo, with “conduct[ing] a comprehensive assessment of best practices resulting in a financially feasible plan to minimize our county’s use of animal euthanasia.”

What better time for some more propaganda to both distract and rally the troops, some of whom are no doubt acutely aware of last week’s unanimous decision by the Alabama State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners (less than 500 miles away) to reject a proposed rule change that targeted non-profit spay/neuter clinics? The Alabama Veterinary Practice Owners Association may have used different tactics (i.e., “concern” for the care of the animals treated at low-cost clinics), but they seem to share what many of us believe to be the true goal of HAHF/HCVMS: to eliminate their low-cost competition.

Which, no matter how you disguise it, is a pretty tough sell to a community of animal lovers (which is to say, any community). No wonder Thompson would rather talk about “cat attacks.”

Literature Cited

1. Paluska, M. (2012) Kitty cameras show Athens cats on the prowlhttp://www.cbsatlanta.com/story/17711012/kitty-cameras-show-athens-cats-on-the-prowl

2. n.a., 2010 Florida Morbidity Statistics Report. 2011, Florida Department of Health, Division of Disease Control, Bureau of Epidemiology: Tallahassee, FL. http://www.doh.state.fl.us/disease_ctrl/epi/Morbidity_Report/2010/2010_AMR.pdf

3. Moran, G.J., et al., “Appropriateness of rabies postexposure prophylaxis treatment for animal exposures. Emergency ID Net Study Group.” Journal of the American Medical Association. 2000. 284(8): p. 1001–1007. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=193015

4. Noah, D.L., et al., “Mass human exposure to rabies in New Hampshire: exposures, treatment, and cost.” American Journal of Public Health. 1996. 86(8): p. 1149–51. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8712277

Free-Roaming Cats, Infectious Diseases, and the Zombie Apocalypse

A recently published paper describing free-roaming cats as “a significant public health threat” fails to deliver convincing evidence. In fact, the very work the authors cite undermines, time and time again, their claims.

“Domestic cats are a potential source of numerous infectious disease agents,” write Rick Gerhold and David Jessup, in their paper, “Zoonotic Diseases Associated with Free-Roaming Cats,” published online in July by the journal Zoonoses Public Health (and to be included in an upcoming print edition).

“However, many of these diseases are controlled in cats belonging to responsible owners through routine veterinary care, proper vaccination regimens and parasite chemotherapy. Free-roaming cats often lack the necessary preventative care to control these diseases and consequently pose a potential health threat to other domestic animals, wildlife and humans.” [1]

Just how much of a threat do these cats pose?

Gerhold and Jessup would have us believe that the risks are high and the consequences dire. A careful reading of their paper, however, reveals the authors’ tendency to cherry-pick some studies and misrepresent others. And, occasionally, simply get their facts wrong.*

All of which raises serious questions about Gerhold and Jessup’s case against free-roaming cats. Read more

Serious Public Health Issues? Seriously?

Culex quinquefasciatus mosquito. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and CDC/Jim Gathany.

“This is a significant study that documents serious wildlife and public health issues associated with 125 million outdoor cats in the United States,” explained the American Bird Conservancy’s vice president for conservation advocacy, Darin Schroeder, in a September 18 press release. [1] Schroeder was referring to a paper (“a review of the various diseases of free-roaming cats and the public health implications associated with the cat populations,” [2] as the authors themselves describe it, not a study) published online in July by the journal Zoonoses Public Health (and to be included in an upcoming print edition).

“The information in this review,” explain Rick Gerhold and David Jessup, the paper’s authors, “highlights the serious public health diseases associated with free-roaming cats and underscores the need for increased public health attention directed towards free-roaming cats.” [2]

I’ll save my critique of “Zoonotic Diseases Associated with Free-Roaming Cats” for next time. And let’s set aside for the moment those alleged wildlife impacts, and ABC’s dubious estimate of the number of outdoor cats in this country. What about ABC’s apparent concern for those “serious public health diseases”? Read more

Mother Dearest

Is it possible I’ve been banned from posting comments on the Mother Jones website—the online home of “smart, fearless journalism”? It certainly looks that way.

Despite several attempts throughout the day Wednesday, my response to senior editor Kiera Butler’s “Kitties, Rabies, the Plague, and You” has yet to appear in the comments. Meanwhile, the conversation continues. Initially, I attributed my virtual absence to a technical problem. After repeated attempts (using two or three different applications to log on), however, I think I have to conclude that my comment is simply not being approved. And will not be approved.

I can’t imagine my response violates MoJo’s comment policy, especially after reading some of the others that have been posted. Could it be the magazine didn’t like being the recipient of the 2011 Trap Liner Award in recognition of its “tragic failure of journalistic integrity while fueling—intentionally or not—the witch-hunt against feral cats”? (This, of course, was in “honor” of Butler’s “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!,” which was later renamed—perhaps in response to some 1,645 comments, including mine—“Are Cats Bad for the Environment?”)

Did somebody at the magazine even notice? Who knows. Perhaps this really is just a tech issue. In any case, here’s my comment:

Given Butler’s previous contribution to the “never-ending war between cat people and bird people,” I’m not surprised she once again swallowed the American Bird Conservancy’s story in one gulp. It’s a shame—the same week Mother Jones made national news with its good old-fashioned hard-hitting journalism, Butler’s reprinting sensationalist press releases.

Had she done even a little bit of research, she would realize that ABC’s claims are just the same old misrepresentations and scaremongering. Take rabies, for example. In 2008, there were 294 cases reported in cats, compared to 75 cases in dogs. But let’s put that into context (using the very same report of CDC data that ABC used): 93 percent of cases were in wildlife; cats made up just 4.3 percent of rabies cases overall.

And, as the report makes clear, reports of rabies cases—such as those typically provided by the CDC—are not an accurate measure of overall infection rates. “Further, because of differences in protocols and submission rates among species and states, comparison of percentages of animals with positive results between species or states is inappropriate.” [1] Unfortunately, such comparisons are commonplace among TNR opponents eager to exaggerate the risk of rabies.

Actually, you’ve got a much better chance of being killed by lightning—not just struck, but killed by lightning. Data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicate that between 1959 and 2011, 3,947 people in the U.S. were killed by lightning.

That’s roughly 75 deaths annually. [2] Due to lightning strikes.

And Butler overlooks the obvious (again): What ABC is proposing is a ban on TNR—which means tens of millions of unsterilized and unvaccinated cats. How exactly is that supposed to benefit wildlife and public health? It’s an obvious question to ask, but one that apparently never occurred to Butler.

Next time I get one of Mother Jones’ e-mail pleas for donations, I think I’ll forward it to Darin Schroeder at ABC. They should at least have to pay their stooges.

So, did I go too far?

Literature Cited
1. Blanton, J.D., et al., “Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2008.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2009. 235(6): p. 676–689. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19751163

www.avma.org/avmacollections/rabies/javma_235_6_676.pdf

2. Holle, R., Lightning Fatalities by State, 1959–2011. 2012, Vaisala: Tucson, AZ. http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/stats/59-11_fatalities_rates.pdf

“Indian Superbug” Found in U.S. Pet Cat

Some unsettling news coming out of the 52nd annual Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC) meeting on Tuesday: a recently-discovered drug-resistant “superbug” has been found in a domestic cat—the first instance of the infection in a pet. Few details are available at this time, including the location of the cat and people involved. It’s also not clear, according to the story reported by Maryn McKenna for Wired Science Blogs, “whether the cat passed NDM-1 on to its family or, conversely, whether the family were responsible for giving the bug to their pet.”

Dubbed the “Indian Superbug” (the acronym NDM-1 is derived from New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase) because of its ties to Southeast Asia, explains McKenna, NDM-1 is “actually a gene which encodes an enzyme which confers resistance to almost all known antibiotics.”

“The NDM-1 story has been long and contentious… but from the first, two things have been clear. However the political battles fall out, medicine views the emergence of this gene as a catastrophe, because it edges organisms to the brink of being completely non-responsive to antibiotics, as untreatable as if the infections were contracted before the antibiotic era began. And because the gene resides in organisms that happily live in the gut without causing symptoms, NDM-1 has been a hidden catastrophe, crossing borders and entering hospitals without ever being detected.” [1]

It’s far too soon to predict how significant a “catastrophe” NDM-1 might be for pets, their guardians, and caregivers remains to be seen. It’s not difficult to imagine, however, that NDM-1 will soon become—despite, or perhaps because of, how little is currently known about it—one more “concern” to be exploited by TNR opponents more interested in scaremongering than in public health.

Literature Cited
1. McKenna, M. (2012) “Superbug” NDM-1 Found In US Cat (ICAAC 3). Wired Science Blogs/Superbug http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/09/ndm-icaac-3

HAHF-Truths, HAHF-Measures, Full Price (Part 3)

Complaining of the impacts of free-roaming cats on wildlife and the environment, along with a range of public health threats, dozens of veterinarians in Hillsborough County, Florida, have banded together to fight TNR. Evidence suggests, however, that their real concern has nothing to do with the community, native wildlife, or, indeed, with cats. What the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation is most interested in protecting, it seems, is the business interests of its members.

In Part 3 of this five-part series, I discuss some of the science surrounding Toxoplasma gondii, and challenge HAHF’s claim that TNR increases the exposure risk for toxoplasmosis.

Cats and Toxoplasma gondii
As recently as last week, the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation was insisting that cats are the only source of Toxoplasma gondii—essentially that without cats, there’s no toxoplasmosis. It looks like they’ve done some editing in the past few days, and the particular statement I’m recalling has been removed.

In any case, it’s not quite that simple. Read more

HAHF-Truths, HAHF-Measures, Full Price (Part 2)

Complaining of the impacts of free-roaming cats on wildlife and the environment, along with a range of public health threats, dozens of veterinarians in Hillsborough County, Florida, have banded together to fight TNR. Evidence suggests, however, that their real concern has nothing to do with the community, native wildlife, or, indeed, with cats. What the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation is most interested in protecting, it seems, is the business interests of its members.

In Part 2 of this five-part series, I use Florida Department of Heath data for rabies cases (in animals) and possible rabies exposures (humans) to challenge HAHF’s claim that free-roaming cats pose a significant rabies threat.

The “trouble with trap-neuter-re(abandon!),” as the Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation explains on its website, “is simply stated by the executive summary of the 2012 Florida Department of Health Rabies Guide.”

“The concept of managing free-roaming/feral domestic cats (Felis catus) is not tenable on public health grounds because of the persistent threat posed to communities from injury and disease. While the risk for disease transmission from cats to people is generally low when these animals are maintained indoors and routinely cared for, free-roaming cats pose a continuous concern to communities. Children are among the highest risk for disease transmission from these cats.” [1]

“Veterinarians are legally required to follow the Rabies Guide,” argues HAHF. “As a result, we are gravely concerned about Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), and the implications of any such county funded or endorsed program.”

But if TNR truly increases the risk of rabies exposure, what difference does it make where the funding comes from? (I’ll get into that in Part 5.)

In any case, veterinarians are legally required to follow the law.

And while the Rabies Guide (PDF), issued by the Florida Department of Health, cites a variety of statutes, codes, and ordinances—in addition to multiple references to the “legislative authority” granted the Florida DOH—it’s curious that the publication doesn’t actually refer to any law prohibiting “the concept of managing free-roaming/feral domestic cats.” (In fact, the entire section covering free-roaming cats is of such poor quality—claims directly contradicting CDC data and reports, for example, and its failure to acknowledge the potential for TNR to provide a rabies barrier between wildlife and humans [2]—one wonders about the motivation of its authors. Perhaps I’ll tackle this in a future post.)

Humans (Possibly) Exposed to Rabies
“More than 2,000 people were exposed to rabid or potentially rabid animals in Florida in 2010,” explains HAHF. “This represents a 46 percent increase over the five-year average, and cats represented 25 percent of the incidents.” In fact, the increase was—according to the very report HAHF cites—actually 41.33 percent, with cats representing 24 percent of “exposed persons for whom treatment was recommended.” [3] But that’s quibbling, I suppose.

What’s far more interesting is how HAHF chose to “edit” their summary of the Florida DOH report, which is worth quoting at length:

“In 2001, reporting of animal encounters for which rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is recommended was initiated. Rabies PEP is recommended when an individual is bitten, scratched, or has mucous membrane or fresh wound contact with the saliva or nervous tissue of a laboratory-confirmed rabid animal, or a suspected rabid animal that is not available for testing. The annual incidence of exposures PEP is recommended has increased since case reporting was initiated. In 2010, the incidence rate was up 41.33 percent over the previous five-year average although the number of confirmed rabid animals decreased in 2010 compared to 2009. This increase in PEP may be due to improved reporting, increased exposures to possible rabid animals, increased inappropriate or unnecessary use of PEP, or a combination of factors. Reductions in state and local resources may contribute to increases in inappropriate or unnecessary use of PEP by decreasing resources to investigate animal exposures and confirm animal health status, and by reducing county health department staff time to provide regular rabies PEP education for health care providers.” [3, emphasis mine]

(As I pointed out in my previous post, HAHF may very well be contributing to the “increased inappropriate or unnecessary use of PEP” with all their scaremongering.)

Suddenly, what seems like a dramatic uptick in rabies exposure—one in which HAHF suggests cats played a key role—looks more like what it is: the result of several poorly understood (and, in some cases, competing) factors. Puzzling, but hardly the public health threat suggested by HAHF.

Interestingly, dogs were implicated in 46 percent of PEP incidents, nearly twice as many as were cats. And, 75 percent of the owned animals (which made up 20 percent of the total) involved in the 2,114 exposures that occurred in 2010 were pet dogs. [3] My point is not to shift attention to dogs, but simply to add a little perspective. One would expect HAHF—as members of the veterinarian community concerned for “our precious children”—to at least acknowledge the point.

Instead, HAHF quotes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “In 2009, rabies cases among cats increased for the second consecutive year. Three times more rabid cats were reported than rabid dogs.” Which is true—but also misleading. As a report of CDC data makes clear: “differences in protocols and submission rates among species and states [make] comparison of percentages of animals with positive results between species or states… inappropriate.” [4]

In other words, the rabies surveillance data at the heart of all these claims are not an accurate reflection of rabies prevalence in the population of any particular species. The low numbers for bobcats in Florida (just 44 across 20 years), for example, are likely a reflection of this cat’s relatively few encounters with humans as much as anything else.

Some additional perspective: since 1960, only two cases of human rabies in the U.S. have been attributed to cats. [5]

The Risks to Children
Contrary to the claims made in the Florida DOH Rabies Guide (“Children are among the highest risk for disease transmission from [free-roaming] cats.”) and on the HAHF website (“a large burden of the [public health] risk lies against our precious children!”), Florida DOH data suggest that the only age group less likely to be exposed to rabies is adults 55 and older. According to the 2010 Florida Morbidity Statistics Report (from which the chart below was taken):

“The average age of the victim for the 2,114 cases reported in 2010 was 37 years, with a range from under one year to 110 years of age. The highest incidence was seen in individuals aged between 20 and 24 years, but incidence was similar for ages 15 to 19 and 45 to 54 years. There were some variations in age based on the type of animal involved. Average age for those recommended to receive PEP who were exposed to dogs was 32 years; cats, 41 years; and wildlife, 43 years.” [3, emphasis mine]

Rabid Animals
It’s perfectly understandable for public health officials to focus on possible exposure and PEP incidents—but it’s also worth looking at the data documenting confirmed cases of rabid animals in Florida and Hillsborough County. (Tampa Bay Online has developed a handy interactive state map of 2006–09 rabies cases.) Doing so reveals a steady downward trend since the mid-1990s* at both the state [6] and county levels, [7] as indicated in the graphs below.

The trend is even more striking when one considers Florida’s population explosion over the same period, from 12,937,926 in 1990 to 18,801,311 in 2010, an increase of 45 percent. More people means more pets—as well as the kinds of interactions with wildlife that lead to increased surveillance reporting.

Now, I’m not prepared to attribute the notable downturn in rabies cases—in cats and in animals overall—to TNR. There are simply too many factors involved. On the other hand, the trend challenges the assertion made by HAHF (and the Florida DOH in its Rabies Guide) that TNR—which has become increasingly popular over the past 20 years—leads to an increased risk of rabies exposure.

•     •     •

*The data suggest that the sharp increase during the early 1990s was due to an increase in rabies cases among the state’s raccoon population.

Coming up:

• Part 3: Toxoplasmosis prevalence
• Part 4: Hillsborough County Animal Services: Past, Present, and Future
• Part 5: Would the real HAHF please stand up?

Literature Cited
1. n.a., Rabies Prevention and Control in Florida, 2012. 2012, Florida Department of Health: Tallahassee, FL. www.myfloridaeh.com/newsroom/brochures/rabiesguide2012.pdf

2. Clifton, M. (2010). How to introduce neuter/return & make it work. Animal People, pp. 3–4, from http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/10/4/April10.htm

3. n.a., 2010 Florida Morbidity Statistics Report. 2011, Florida Department of Health, Division of Disease Control, Bureau of Epidemiology: Tallahassee, FL. http://www.doh.state.fl.us/disease_ctrl/epi/Morbidity_Report/2010/2010_AMR.pdf

4. Blanton, J.D., et al., “Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2008.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2009. 235(6): p. 676–689. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19751163

www.avma.org/avmacollections/rabies/javma_235_6_676.pdf

5. n.a., “Recovery of a Patient from Clinical Rabies—California, 2011.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2012. 61(4): p. 61–64. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6104a1.htm

6. n.a., 20 Year Animal Rabies Summary by Species (1991–2010) 2011, Florida Department of Health: Tallahassee, FL. http://www.doh.state.fl.us/environment/medicine/rabies/Data/2010/Rabies20YrTable91_10.pdf

7. n.a. Rabies Surveillance: Charts, Maps, and Graphs. 2006 [cited 2012 August 25].  http://www.doh.state.fl.us/Disease_ctrl/epi/rabies/chart.html.

Westchester County, NY, Rabies Case

“A rabies alert was posted Tuesday by the Westchester County Department of Health,” reported the Tarrytown Daily Voice earlier this week, “after a police officer shot a stray cat who attacked him after trying to attack a man and woman in Elmsford.”

“When Elmsford Police Department responded, the cat chased the officer into a neighbor’s yard and attacked him. The cat bit the officer’s leg as he tried to fend off the animal, police said. The officer shook the cat from his leg, but the animal pounced at the officer again, puncturing his skin with its teeth and claws.

‘An officer got a few nasty bites and is being treated for rabies,’ [Elmsford Mayor Robert] Williams said Sunday night, before testing confirmed the cat had rabies. ‘You have to start the treatment right away while they are awaiting the results from the cat. He was released from the hospital later that day [Friday] and went home to rest. He returned to work the next day.’” [1]

No doubt TNR opponents will have a field day with this one. But how about a little perspective? Read more

Toxoplasmosis Linked to Suicide Attempts?

“There’s fresh evidence that cats can be a threat to your mental health,” according to a post on yesterday’s NPR health blog, Shots. The threat, reporter Jon Hamilton explains, is not the cats themselves by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite that some cats pass in their feces.*

“A study of more than 45,000 Danish women found that those infected with [Toxoplasma gondii] were 1.5 times more likely to attempt suicide than women who weren’t infected.” [1]

“Still,” Hamilton continues, “the absolute risk of suicide remains very small. Fewer than 1,000 of the women attempted any sort of self-directed violence during the 30-year study span. And just seven committed suicide.” [1]

In fact, it may well be that T. gondii infection has no bearing on the risk of suicide at all.

As the researchers themselves point out in a paper published in this month’s issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, “we cannot say with certainty whether the observed association between T. gondii infection and self-directed violence is causal.”

T. gondii infection is likely not a random event and it is conceivable that the results could be alternatively explained by people with psychiatric disturbances having a higher risk of becoming T. gondii infected prior to contact with the health system.” [2]

In other words, it’s possible that mental illness is a risk factor for T. gondii infection, rather than the other way around. Read more