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A Scary Cat Tale

My husband and I have housecats. They are our babies.  They never go outside. They're spayed/neutered and vaccinated. 

My late parents lived in a retirement cottage at the back of our property until a few years ago.  My mom had two cats.  They were her babies. They were indoor/outdoor cats. Since my parents no longer live there, the two cats have become our "yard babies."

"Eunice Grimshaw" aka Eunie
eventually Boonie

Mama and Boonie

"Mrs. Thornton" aka "Mama"
eventually T-Mama

T-Mama today

We've always had occasional "sightings" of neighborhood cats, or perhaps strays or ferals, traversing our yard. We occasionally saw a white one with gray ears, gray tail and two gray spots on its side and back. My mother called him "Spot" and was certain he was coming around to tomcat with her "girls"--despite the fact that both her girls had been fixed. Eventually, he quit coming around, and we had no more Spot-sightings.


A couple of years ago, we saw Spot return. He started coming around to eat our yard babies' food. He was getting skinny as a rail but would only eat enough to stay alive. And he wouldn't eat until hubby and I went back inside.

Before long, he grew bolder. He'd not only eat with us around, he'd weave around our legs when we brought the food out, meowing to be fed, as cats are prone to do. 

Spot, coming around to be fed

Sometimes, when he saw a hand approaching, he'd lift his neck and shoulders to be petted. My husband said the cat had to have been socialized to humans at some point but grew half-feral, and wondered if he and his human family had to part company for some reason.

Anyway, we fed and fed him. ( He was picky. Preferred canned to dry; preferred Little Friskies to Nine Lives or Special Kitty.)  We had it in mind to feed and socialize him -- and to own him, if his owners could not be found.

He seemed to slowly be coming around.

I was  up late writing one night and around two a.m., I saw Spot on the carport, eating.  He hasn't gained much weight, but his little sides were bulging from that meal.  When he finished eating, I went outside to pet him, and gently feel his sides, and he curled around and bit my hand.  Four puncture wounds in the fleshy part of my thumb.

I washed the wounds with water, poured isopropyl alcohol on them, then hydrogen peroxide, finishing up with a nice slathering of Bacitracin.  That was between two and three a.m. on Thursday, July 23.

At some point Thursday, it occurred to me to wonder if humans could get rabies from cat bites.  Of course, the cat doing the biting would itself have to be infected, but I assumed cats could be.  So I got online and read. My county health department's website had information on rabies control. 

The local media reported no rabies alerts in my county since the fall of 2009, when there had been several reports of rabid animals biting people in the north end of the county. There was a current alert for an adjacent county.  All the animals involved were wild (foxes and raccoons) except two. They were domesticated cats.


Rabies has to be one of the most horrifying diseases known to man. Logically, I know the bullet-shaped rabies virus is just RNA, just a string of proteins coiled around inside a "skin" with no will, no intent. It's a thing. But my feelings tell me it is evil. Diabolical. What it does to humans and animals sounds like it came straight from the mind of the devil.

It attacks the central nervous system -- spine and brain -- invading the cells so it can replicate.  Here's a page  from the Centers for Disease Control with diagrams and rather stuffy scientific-sounding narrative providing information about the rabies virus, rhabdoviridae, that doesn't begin to describe the horror of its effects.  There are websites that do, though, along with videos on YouTube that will give you nightmares.

Human cases are rare in the USA but rabies kills about 50,000 people a year in developing countries, most of them children. Once the symptoms manifest, death is inevitable. It is 100% fatal and unless palliative care is available, the process of dying is brutal and terrifying.

By Friday morning, I was terrorized enough to call my doc, and I went in to see him about 1:30.   My blood pressure was 160 over 90. I'm sure anxiety played a part in that -- there were other anxiety-producing circumstances in my life at the time, too, not just possible exposure to rabies, but those are another story.  However, there was also the fact that I'd forgotten to take my lisinopril that day.  Well, duh....

When my doc's nurse found out the cat bit me because I was trying to pet him, she was like Pffft!  She grew much less concerned about rabies. "You provoked the attack.  If you were just sitting on your patio reading, and the cat comes up out of the blue and bites you, that's an unprovoked attack and that would be a  much greater cause for concern."

I got a tetanus booster (last one I had was probably 15 years ago) and a prescription for Augmentin, for any other "cat mouth cooties" Spot may have had.  (I wish I could take credit for that marvelous phrase, but I found it here.)

Above and right, Spot before The Bite

My situation was very low risk.  There were currently no rabies alerts in  my area. Nine out of ten people who are bitten by a rabid animal do not become infected. Rabies is almost always found in wild animalis in the USA, mainly skunks, raccoons, foxes and bats. We have a few wooded areas nearby with these and other wildlife inhabitants; but we've never seen anything but possums, two of which have wandered into our yard in the middle of the night in the almost twenty  years we've lived here.  Cats are less likely than dogs to become infected by a bite from a wild animal, because where a dog will attack, a cat will run away and won't fight unless it's threatened or cornered.

However, low-risk is not absolute certainty, so we had the cat under observation, per instructions of my doctor, and if it died, disappeared or exhibited symptoms before day ten of the observation period, I would go in for post-exposure prophylaxis (no longer the twelve excruciating injections in the stomach, but very expensive, and probably not covered by insurance.) If Spot did develop symptoms, I would call animal control to come get him and euthanize him ASAP so he would suffer as little of the disease as possible.

I recorded his feeding times and behavior and photographed him as the observation period progressed. He was an old cat, and too malnourished to fight off such an overwhelming infectious agent. So every day that he behaved normally for a semi-stray cat was heartening.

He did start to show symptoms, but not of rabies. He's showied very cat-like symptoms of moving in and taking over, of taking ownership of myself and my husband, putting us on his "staff." Every day that he showed this kind of behavior reduced my anxiety.

Reading up on rabies on the Internet was probably not a good idea. That's where a lot of my anxiety came from. Husband said, "You need to quit reading that stuff!"

Spot -- skinny and standoffish
My collegues at my online writers' crit group agreed. They gave me many kind words of encouragement and advice.

So, no more surfing for rabies....

There are many infectious diseases that kill far more people around the world than rabies, but this virus is so diabolical, I'd love to see it go the way of smallpox, which exists only in two laboratories in the world: the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia, and a research lab in Koltsovo, Russia.

So I'm considering making it part of the storyline in a future novel, and donating a portion of the sales to rabies eradication. But I won't be writing that story -- or even thinking about it -- for a while yet.

Epilogue -- July 2013

Obviously, neither Spotty nor I had rabies. But the cat bite was not without consequences. My husband was the first to note, "He bit you and infected you with love." Spotty was too old and independent to change his ways much, but I doted on him and he approved of me. He fattened up some, came in the house when he wanted to (I made certain our two house cats accommodated his presence, even if they were disgruntled about it) and let me know when he was ready to go back outside. 

He had been very fat and sassy several years before, when we had sightings of him in the yard coming to "tomcat" my mom's girls (although he was as "fixed" as they were). I sometimes wondered about the circumstances of his renewed visits to our yard, skinny and standoffish. He had been somebody's cat at one time, as he was socialized. I speculated that perhaps his mama and/or daddy had been older and had passed away, like my own parents, or perhaps had been taken to live with children -- and their caregivers did not know they had an indoor-outdoor cat and he got left behind. Somehow, he had learned to survive on his on and when he first came to our patio, all he wanted from us was food. But eventually, he and I hit it off. And that bite sealed our fate. 

Spotty died peacefully in his sleep in early July 2012, a little less than a year after the love bite. I still miss him very much.

Spotty -- fattened up and sassy

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