Stray cats boosting rabies risk in Brevard. 16 rabid cats reported statewide in 2018
Health officials wonder if TNR (trap, neuter, release) plays a role.
MELBOURNE — Marcia Carlin kept "Termite" crated next to her desk at the Humane Society of South Brevard, where she's the manager. Her daughter had found the black kitten in the lot of the Dog Spot Hotel on Industry Drive, with a broken leg and a bite wound on its tail.
Termite was testy, so Carlin reached into the cage to pat his tummy. Termite bit her right thumb, drawing blood.
"I never would have thought rabies," Carlin said. "He didn't bite me out of meanness."
A day later, Termite began panting and chewing on his good leg. He had to be put down. Tests confirmed rabies.Termite was the fourth rabid stray cat reported in Brevard since July.
Over the last six months, from July to January, bites or scratches from the four rabid stray cats in Brevard resulted in 13 people requiring costly rabies shots to save their lives.
Before the first of the four cats went rabid, Brevard hadn’t had a single cat test positive for rabies since 2012, state health records show. Statewide, there were 16 rabid cats reported last year, the most since 2005, according to state health data.
Florida health officials aren't sure what's behind the spate of rabid stray cats. They speculate about natural cycles of the rabies virus, insufficient vaccination efforts and more raccoons and coyotes.
But there is another theory gaining traction among some public health officials: the growing popularity of an approach by animal services and pet shelters to save homeless cats from being euthanized by putting them back on the street, usually after being spayed and neutered. The controversial practice is known as TNR for trap, neuter and release.
Champions of TNR — among them Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey, who took over the county's animal shelter in 2014 — swear by the practice as a humane way to treat homeless cats. The county shelter rarely traps cats, but does routinely neuter and release shelter cats if no one adopts them.
Critics claim TNR is not good for cats or humans, exposing the animals to predators, illness and starvation, and people to nuisance issues and health risks. They say stepped-up spay, neuter and adoption efforts are the better, more humane way to go.
No definitive study compares rabies risk in Florida counties that trap, neuter and release cats to those that don't, and no one can directly link releasing cats to the recent spate of rabies. Also, the four recent rabid cats in Brevard are not reported to have been released from the county shelter.
Archive story:Rabies alert issued for parts of south Brevard
But federal and state health officials, as well as wildlife biologists, have warned for years that TNR, coupled with a surge in other wild critters, would fuel a perfect viral storm for a jump in rabies cases in Florida.
Since at least 2013, federal officials had warned state and local governments not to underestimate the risk of large-scale rabies exposures that cat release programs represented.
"Although trap-neuter-vaccinate-return programs are growing in popularity as alternatives to euthanizing feral cats, their ability to adequately address disease threats and population growth within managed cat colonies is dubious," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers wrote in a 2013 study. "Rabies transmission via feral cats is a particular concern," it warned.
Traditionally, public health officials always urged keeping cats as indoor pets only, to reduce disease transmission and wildlife impacts.
Officially, the Florida Department of Heath opposes trap, fix and release programs, stating they are “not tenable on public health grounds because of the persistent threat posed to communities from injury and disease.” The agency's official statement on the issue also says “children are among the highest risk for disease transmission from these cats.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is also on the record as being against TNR because feral cats represent a threat to many native threatened and endangered species.
But the agencies' opposition to TNR has never translated into action with the state barring the growing practice.
"It really is a public health and environmental issue, not a pet issue," said Pam LaSalle, a longtime animal advocate in Brevard County and critic of community cat colonies. "This is all (the fault of) the Florida Health Department not putting their foot down and protecting the public from rabies."
According to University of Florida research, there are an estimated 10 million free-roaming cats statewide.
No one knows how many domestic cats live exclusively outdoors in Brevard. A list of known community cat colonies that county officials kept until a decade ago included some 500 colonies totaling 5,000 cats, but officials don't track these numbers any more.
Cats get abandoned countywide, often at or near parks or remote areas where people who can no longer keep them see other cats and assume they're taken care of or living well. One of the recent rabid cats was from an area where people dump and feed cats near Coastal Florida Sports Park in Cocoa.
The Brevard County Sheriff's Office South Animal Care Center in Melbourne began releasing cats in March 2016, as part of its efforts to make the county animal service's main animal intake facility a "no-kill" shelter. A no-kill designation requires shelters to demonstrate that 90 percent of the animals that come through their doors are rehoused or released instead of euthanized.
Since 2016, the county shelter has released at least 1,845 cats back outside, typically as close as possible to where they find them, according to a FLORIDA TODAY analysis of BCSO data.
Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey defended the shelter's policy of releasing cats — called "return to field" — under the recommendation of a nonprofit group, called Target Zero. Cats believed to be someone's pet are generally kept at the animal shelter for five days before they are returned by animal services staff to the place where they were picked up. Sheriff's office officials say this makes it much more likely that such a cat would be able to return to its home.
“Our return to field initiative is currently active and has no negative impact on the rabies alert areas as every cat that is released from our Animal Care Center is vaccinated against the rabies virus," Ivey said via email.
Rabies vaccinations are effective for up to three years, Ivey added, and prevent incidence of rabies. "As such, we are being proactive by taking in feral cats that have never been vaccinated and are at risk for rabies and releasing them after sterilization and vaccination, so they are no longer at risk or able to reproduce,” he said.
Ivey said the county's return to field initiative for cats is "a highly recommended, successful and effective program that is supported by programs such as Target Zero, the University of Florida's Million Cat Challenge, Best Friends Animal Society and other nationally recognized animal welfare groups throughout the country."
"The only humane way to reduce the number of feral cat colonies in a community is through return to field programs such as ours," Ivey said. "Making sure that every cat is vaccinated against the rabies virus before they are released helps remove any health and safety concerns.”
Critics of releasing shelter cats outside say it's almost impossible to keep rabies vaccinations and booster shots current after immunity wears off.
When animal services captures an animal that bites or scratches someone, they quarantine it for 10 days. That's how long it typically takes rabies to kill the animal after the virus enters the brain, the only time the animal is infectious to humans. If the animal shows rabies symptoms or dies, the exposed person gets the shots. If 10 days pass and the animal is fine, they don't need the shots.
Health officials administered 85 post-rabies exposure treatments in Brevard last year, including 22 caused by cats, 33 by raccoons, and rest by dogs, bats and one monkey.
Statewide, possible rabies exposures have jumped from 475 in 2000 to more than 4,000 in 2018, according to state health data.
Florida hadn't had a human rabies case acquired in Florida since 1948. Then in 2017, a 56-year-old Highlands County woman died after being bitten by a bat. And last year, 6-year-old Ryker Roque of Eustis died a week after handling an injured bat, heightening public awareness about the deadly disease.
Currently, two areas of the county are under 60-day rabies alerts — a spot near State Road 524 and Interstate 95 until March 18, and an area near Pineda Causeway in Melbourne until March 26 — were the result of infected cats.
Typically, raccoons or bats are the cause of public rabies alerts in Florida. Normally run-ins between rural wildlife and cats are rare.
But cats are often released or dumped near populated places like shopping centers or trailer parks. There they congregate near dumpsters and other places where food gets left. The garbage and leftover scraps also lure raccoons and other wildlife, creating more opportunities for inter-species encounters and rabies transmissions, federal and state health officials warn.
In mid-January, a caretaker for a community cat in Brevard County got bit by a kitten that tested positive for rabies, sheriff's office records show. The kitten also bit a vet tech at Island Animal Hospital on Merritt Island.
The six to 12 rabies shots required after exposure, depending on weight, can run up to almost $5,000, health officials say, with insurance and/or the health department covering the cost.
As Marcia Carlin's thumb heals from Termite's bite, she remains mindful of the rabies risk and warns others to do the same.
"I just want to caution people to be careful," she said.
Contact Waymer at 321-242-3663
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Human exposure to rabies in Florida?
Possible human exposures to rabies continued to increase in 2017, growing from 1,618 in 2008 to 3,478 in 2017:
- Number of cases — 3,478
- Rate (per 100,000 population) — 16.9
- Change from 5-year average rate — +12.8 percent
Source: Florida Department of Health annual mortality statistics
Brevard County animals positive for rabies (statewide total)
Brevard has had 1 raccoon and 2 cats positive for rabies in 2019 (as of Feb. 1, 2019). Statewide, there has been five raccoons, one bat, one otter and three cats, for a total of 10 animals that have tested positive for rabies.
• 2019: 2 cats, 1 raccoon (10)
• 2018: 2 cats, 7 raccoons, 1 bat (110)
• 2017: 4 bats (79)
• 2016: 1 bat, 1 horse (59)
• 2015: 1 raccoon (83)
• 2014: 0 animals (92)
• 2013: 1 raccoon (105)
• 2012: 1 cat, 1 bat, 1 coyote (102)
• 2011: 4 raccoons (119)
• 2010: 1 cat, 3 raccoons (128)
• 2009: 1 raccoon (154)
Source: Florida Department of Health
Post-rabies exposure treatments from rabid cats in Brevard
• July 21, 2018: 1 person
• Sept. 6, 2018: 5 people
• Jan. 16, 2019: 6 people
• Jan. 24, 2019: 1 person
Note: Health officials recommend post rabies exposure treatment for anyone who has been bitten or scratched by a cat when they cannot find the cat alive 10 days after the exposure. For information, visit: myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/nonnatives/feral-cats.