Dogs were the primary domestic carrier of rabies until the 1970s, when roundups of strays and vaccination programs eradicated canine rabies. That hasn’t happened with cats.
Approximately 300 rabid cats are reported each year in the United States, says Jesse Blanton, a CDC epidemiologist. The CDC estimates that 16% of people in the United States who undergo rabies treatment are exposed to the deadly virus from cats. They must be treated with a series of shots.
Human deaths from rabies are rare in the United States — two or three a year — and there have been no deaths linked to cats in decades.
The issue is part of a debate over how to deal with unwanted cats and their offspring. There are 74 million owned cats in the United States, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Estimates on the number of feral cats vary from 60 million to 150 million.
Many cat groups want an end to euthanasia in shelters. Because most feral cats haven’t been socialized to live with humans and aren’t suitable for adoption, they see creating outdoor colonies where they’re fed and cared for as a humane alternative.
Trapping, neutering, vaccinating and returning feral cats to the wild means they remain healthy and disease-free, and the colonies eventually die out, says Becky Robinson,co-founder of Alley Cat Allies n Bethesda, Md., which has people caring for colonies in all 50 states.
The researchers say vaccination programs are not thorough enough to end the threat. Cats have lower rabies vaccination rates than dogs; 38 states require vaccination for dogs vs. 30 for cats.
To be protected against rabies, cats need to be vaccinated once as kittens, then a year later and then at about three-year intervals, says Jane Brunt, a veterinarian and past president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners.
Capturing and recapturing feral cats two or three times during their lives to adequately vaccinate them is difficult, Rupprecht says. The study says achieving the level of coverage necessary to protect those who come into contact with the stray cats “is doubtful.”