You are 32,250 times more likely to hit double zero than to meet a rabid cat in Hillsborough County
TAMPA, Florida––With the 2016 final numbers yet to be reported by Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the lowest annual total of rabid cats ever found in the U.S. came in 2015, the second lowest total in 2013––and the 2014 number would have been the lowest ever before 2005.
Altogether, the eight lowest annual totals on record of rabid cats found in the U.S. have come in the past 12 years.
Tampa-area cat rabies cases fell to zero in 2014-2015
Hillsborough County, Florida, including the city of Tampa, human population 1.3 million, averaged 14 rabid cats found per year from 1993 through 2013, according to Florida Department of Health Records, but reported none in 2014, none in 2015, three in 2016, and has had just one through the first six months of 2017.
Currently a person is 32,250 times more likely to hit double zero on a roulette wheel than to encounter a rabid cat in Hillsborough County.
So why did Steve Andrews of WFLA report on June 8, 2017, in the first of a three-part series, that “It’s rabies roulette in Hillsborough County”?
“Hell-bent on shutting down TNR”
Though one should never attribute to malice what might be attributed to stupidity, or to stupidity what might be attributed just to extreme ignorance, Vox Felina blogger Peter Wolf alleged on June 14, 2017 that Andrews is “hell-bent on shutting down TNR efforts in the area,” meaning trap-neuter-return feral cat control.
The 2013 advent of TNR as an official Hillsborough County Pet Resources Center coincided with a 93% decline in cat rabies cases and a 20% decline in county shelter admissions of cats within just two years. But Andrews apparently did not look up the numbers, or do a quick pocket calculator logarithmic estimate of the impact of the impact of the Humane Society of Tampa Bay having sterilized and vaccinated more than 50,000 cats during current executive director Sherry Silk’s tenure on the job.
Rounded up the usual suspects
Instead Andrews just rounded up the usual local anti-TNR suspects, including Hillsborough Animal Health Foundation founder/president Don Thompson and his wife Katie Thompson, co-owners of the Fishhawk Veterinary Center, and fellow veterinarian Christy Layton of the Timberlane Pet Hospital & Resort, last heard from by ANIMALS 24-7 in August 2015, when she blamed opponents of declawing cats for her failure to win an “America’s Favorite Vet” contest sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Foundation.
Instead, the AVMA cancelled the contest when anti-declaw vet Gary Richter appeared likely to overtake Layton––or perhaps already had––within 48 hours of being endorsed by the anti-declawing organization Paw Project.
Cat hit by car tested positive
“This latest chapter in the Hillsborough County witch-hunt (which goes back years),” Wolf wrote, “began when a Good Samaritan attempting to help a cat who’d been hit by a car was bitten. The cat was unable to be saved and then quarantined, and so was instead euthanized and submitted for testing. And according to the Hillsborough County Health Department, the cat—who was ear-tipped—tested positive for rabies.”
Reported Andrews, “The clipped ear signifies the cat was trapped, neutered, vaccinated for rabies and released (TNVR), part of the so called feral cat program.”
But was the cat actually part of a TNR program?
But unless the clipped ear was surgically cauterized, a detail ANIMALS 24-7 has so far been unable to verify, it might signify nothing more than that the cat somehow suffered an ear injury.
Unless the cat displayed surgical scars, or sterilization was confirmed by post-mortem exam, the cat might not have been neutered.
Even if the cat was sterilized and ear-tipped for identification, a now-common practice worldwide, many individuals and organizations, including in Hillsborough County, have followed that part of the protocol without vaccinating the cats in their programs.
Omitting vaccination is obviously not recommended best procedure, and not what the Humane Society of Tampa Bay has ever done, executive director Silk told ANIMALS 24-7. But nothing definitely identified the rabid cat with either the Humane Society of Tampa Bay neuter/return program or any other.
Are vaccines slower in Florida?
“Whether or not the cat was vaccinated remains a matter of speculation,” Wolf said. “But the incident was enough to draw the usual cast of characters out of the woodwork.”
Continued Andrews, “According to the Department of Health’s Steve Huard, it takes 28 days for a rabies vaccine to take hold. That provides little protection for a cat vaccinated one day and released into the wild the next.”
But the claim, even if accurately attributed, appears to be little supported by veterinary literature. Rabies control programs worldwide routinely release both cats and dogs back into their habitat or homes with other animals and humans immediately after vaccination.
The longest estimated time for a rabies vaccination to be fully effective that ANIMALS 24-7 could find in current veterinary literature was 14 days, and that was for very young animals, vaccinated as soon as their immune systems are capable of producing antibodies in response to the vaccine.
Fulminations on Facebook
Posted Layton to her Facebook page, “Yet ANOTHER Rabies case in our county… This time in another CAT… When will our county officials realize that it is NOT a good idea to increase the number of feral cats in our county by doing TNR and promoting people to feed these animals outside along with raccoons (top rabies carrier)??”
The cat hit by the car in Tampa was in truth only the third rabid animal found in Hillsborough County in 2017, down from an annual average of 182 before the Tampa neuter/return program began, and the other two rabid animals were both raccoons.
“People need to realize that ONE vaccination is NOT enough to protect these cats and thus anyone they bite from rabies!!”, Layton fulminated further.
Vaccination & boosters
But for all practical purposes, one rabies vaccination administered to a healthy cat of at least six weeks of age is sufficient to protect almost all cats for three years, more than the average life of an outdoor cat. The outer limit of effectiveness of a good “three-year” rabies vaccination in a cat is often beyond six years.
Giving cats and dogs a booster rabies vaccination after one year is commonly recommended as a precaution for pets, who will have frequent contact with people, but most bona fide feral cats want no contact with people at all.
Alleged Layton to Andrews, “The community is at risk, because if they get bitten, we don’t know anything about the vaccine history of these cats,” as if anything more might be known if thousands of cats per year were not being vaccinated at all.
“Showed her true colors”
Recalled Wolf, “Layton showed her true colors five years ago when, as president of the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society, she co-authored a proposal that would have effectively ended TNR in Hillsborough County—leaving thousands of cats unvaccinated. That same proposal would have housed up to 750 cats ‘unable to be adopted for whatever reason’ on each of two 10-acre compounds where ‘electricity would likely not be required.’”
Katie Thompson, meanwhile, told Andrews, according to his paraphrase, that “despite the panic witnessed with Ebola, rabies is the deadliest virus on the planet.”
This is true in terms of the certainty of death if a victim is infected, but in terms of total deaths caused per year, worldwide, at least 11 arboviruses carried by ticks and mosquitos kill more people.
Suing Hillsborough County
Yet another Hillsborough County veterinarian, Ellen Alence, “is taking Hillsborough County commissioners to court, claiming the animal control ordinance [allowing TNR] violates state law” by allowing neuter/return practitioners to omit re-trapping cats to give rabies vaccination boosters, Andrews reported.
“It’s a very lethal loophole that they’ve created in the rabies re-vaccination laws,” Alence told Andrews.
Noted Wolf, “It has been more than 40 years since a case of human rabies in the U.S. was attributed to a cat,” although an eight-year-old girl in Humboldt County, California became a rare rabies survivor in 2011 after she was infected by a cat.
In terms of relative risk, more than 400 Americans have been killed by pit bulls since the last human death of rabies contracted from a cat, yet Layton in particular remains an outspoken pit bull advocate.
Assessed Wolf, “When you have veterinarians, lawyers, public health officials, and members of the news media clamoring to shut down the only programs providing vaccinations for the very animals least likely to receive such services you have to wonder about their motivation.
“The evidence suggests this visceral opposition to TNR—and to subsidized veterinary services in general—has very little to do with public health or animal welfare,” Wolf opined. “If the current number of rabies cases is a grave public health concern, then where was the outcry in 2001? And where were these same ‘concerned citizens’ when, following a highly publicized rabies case in 2013 (in Palm Beach), the Animal Coalition of Tampa and Humane Society of Tampa Bay sponsored a mobile vaccine clinic?
Cats to be microchipped
“That’s easy—they were nowhere to be found. One wonders if Layton, Thompson, and their like-minded colleagues will be satisfied now that Scott Trebatoski, director of the Hillsborough County Pet Resources Center, has announced that all cats included in the shelter’s TNR efforts will now be microchipped. Although this will obviously improve the ability to track a particular cat’s vaccination history, I doubt opponents will let up.
“Indeed,” Wolf finished, “even if community cat programming was halted countywide, there would still be all the veterinary services provided to the many pets of low-income residents—which seems to be the real objection here.”
“Gruesome feral cat deaths”
Andrews in June 2016 extensively quoted veterinarian Don Thompson in a feature attacking the Humane Society of Tampa Bay neuter/return program entitled “Quick release after surgery results in gruesome feral cat deaths.”
Intoned Andrews, “8 On Your Side has seen pictures of what’s happened to some [cats]. The pictures are so disturbing, News Channel 8 managers won’t allow them on television.”
But as with the rabid cat alleged to have been part of the neuter/return program in June 2017, Andrews presented no evidence actually linking the injured cats shown in the photos to the Humane Society of Tampa Bay’s American Animal Hospital Association-certified clinic.
Seven to 10 days in a cone?
“Every Monday, feral cats trapped by the Humane Society of Tampa Bay and the Pet Resources Center, are spayed or neutered and vaccinated,” Andrews explained, then added “Usually, cats undergoing this sort of procedure spend seven to 10 days in a cone, to prevent them from getting at their incision.”
Checking dozens of sets of post-operative care instructions for cats after spaying, from both private practice clinics and high-volume nonprofit clinics, including the very highly regarded Angell Memorial Hospital operated by the Massachusetts SPCA and the FACE clinic in Indianapolis, which has one of the lowest rates of post-surgical complication of any veterinary hospital in the world, ANIMALS 24-7 found no such recommendation as part of standard practice, nor even a recommendation that cats be routinely coned.
The Thompsons, Layton, Alence, et al initially sought to block the Humane Society of Tampa Bay neuter/return program, when it was proposed in 2012, with the claim that it would adversely affect native wildlife, as if native wildlife would be less affected if feral cats were just left to reproduce as able.
Wrote Wolf then, “Evidence suggests 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.”