Kitten with unusual rabies strain sparks unusual response in Douglas County to prevent ‘snowball’

By: - October 16, 2023 6:18 pm

(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OMAHA — A kitten showing up unannounced and unexpectedly on someone’s doorstep typically is not cause for alarm.

But the recent case of a stray baby cat taken in by an Omaha family — a cat subsequently discovered to be infected with a rabies strain officials said they’ve never seen in Nebraska’s largest county — has stirred enough worry to launch an unprecedented local operation.

Douglas County Health officials on Monday called a news conference to outline efforts, including deploying a team of state and federal officials to trap, test and vaccinate raccoons in an area from F to Fort Streets and from 72nd Street to the Missouri River.

The variant is linked typically to raccoons east of Appalachia. Locally, a goal is to vaccinate about 1,000 raccoons.

“It’s just something that can snowball very quickly,” said County Health Director Lindsay Huse. “The goal is to prevent this raccoon variant of rabies from establishing itself here in our area. This would cause a substantial impact if it happened and put many people in danger.” 

Flanked by a group of animal and health representatives, Huse said the type of rabies discovered in the now-deceased kitten is known to be carried by raccoons in Southeastern states. ‘It’s not something that we see 1,000 miles west in Nebraska,” said Huse.

She said the virus itself isn’t “likely significantly different” than other rabies strains. But she said the local concern is heightened because raccoons are so common in Nebraska and they frequently come into contact with domestic animals and pets.

“Of course then those domestic animals come into our homes and we have exposure to them,” she said, which is “really why we have a higher level of concern with this particular strain.” 

In the kitten central to the local worry, officials are uncertain how the animal — believed to be not more than a couple of months old — was infected or how it came to arrive at the home of the family that befriended it in late September.

That family apparently gave the kitten to another family, which transported it to a veterinarian after noticing odd behavior, including aggression.

The vet’s results were tested at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which, Huse said, linked them to the raccoon rabies variant. She said Douglas County officials were notified Oct. 6.

Officials at the news conference said it’s been more than 20 years since a cat in the area tested positive for rabies.

More common is rabies detected in area bats.

The investigation is in early stages. But Huse and Alicia Hardin of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission believe the trapping and surveillance phase will offer information to better understand risks and the scope of the situation.

Hardin said she had never before seen such precautions taken for rabies in the area. In addition to county health officials, representatives of the CDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are involved in the investigation.

Huse said more than 2,000 letters are being sent to households in the testing boundaries — a three-mile radius around the site where the kitten was found — to inform people that the federal team is investigating and to obtain permission to trap raccoons on private property.

Traps also are being set up in public and park areas. If raccoons show no signs of problems, they are to be vaccinated and released.

Six members of two families who handled the kitten and may have been exposed via saliva (no bites were reported) have or are undergoing appropriate treatment, as were four people at the veterinarian’s office.  

Huse said officials are warning the public to beware of stray animals acting strangely (drooling, acting especially aggressively or timidly) — noting that containing a spreading variant could be costly. They also ask that people make sure their pet vaccines are current.

In addition to the letters, investigators will be knocking on doors in the targeted boundary area to seek permission to “safely and humanely” trap raccoons in private yards. The CDC and USDA teams will be in the field for several weeks, and surveillance will be ongoing for some time beyond that, Huse said.

The county asks that  people call the Nebraska Humane Society at 402.444.7800 (ext. 1) if they see a domestic or wild animal acting strangely.

“We want to protect our local wildlife, our pets and of course our people from this fatal disease,” Huse said.

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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.

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