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Rabies Laws Cost Animal Lives

Testing for rabies requires killing the animal, since the only way to make a positive diagnosis is by testing brain tissue. But of the 120,000 total animals (of all species combined, not just cats) killed for rabies testing in the U.S. each year, only about 6% test positive. Among domestic animals like cats, the proportion of positive tests is less than 1%.

This killing is entirely unnecessary and all too often preventable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledges this on its website: "We have learned that it is not necessary to euthanize and test all animals that bite or otherwise potentially expose a person to rabies. For animals with a low probability of rabies such as dogs, cats, and ferrets, observation periods (10 days) may be appropriate to rule out the risk of potential human rabies exposure."

Cats who have bitten or scratched a person

The CDC recommends a 10-day confinement for vaccinated and unvaccinated pets, but still advises that any stray or "unwanted" domestic animal who bites a person be killed and tested for rabies. Feral cats vaccinated through Trap-Neuter-Return are protected against rabies, but since they are not owned, in this situation it would be up to animal control (or in some situations, the public health department) to decide whether or not to kill and test the cat.

Cats who have been exposed to rabies

Domestic animals may also be killed and tested if they have been exposed to rabies, but bitten no one. The CDC suggests a minimum 45-day confinement for vaccinated pets that have been exposed—if they show no sign of rabies during this time, they don’t have to be tested. But the CDC advises killing unowned or unvaccinated animals for testing immediately, with no observation period at all. If the owner of an unvaccinated pet refuses to allow the testing, the CDC recommends impounding and quarantining the pet at the owner’s expense for up to six months. Feral cats, however, would likely be killed in this situation.

Cats with "wounds of unknown origin"

Beyond biting or scratching a person or being exposed to rabies by another animal, many states consider any "wound of unknown origin" on an animal as a potential rabies exposure. Rabies testing laws are determined by state and local authorities and enforced by animal control—they vary from state to state and even city to city—but the CDC recommends that authorities immediately kill and test wounded stray or feral animals and wounded unvaccinated pets even if they don’t display signs of rabies.

The recommendations from the CDC are often especially deadly for feral cats and are a huge hindrance to Trap-Neuter-Return. For instance, when feral cats are trapped, they often thrash about in the cage trying to escape, causing superficial wounds on the face or paws—minor injuries that sometimes classify as "wounds of unknown origin" and cause otherwise healthy cats to end up in quarantine.

Also, not all states require cats with wounds of unknown origin to be killed immediately, but many require a lengthy quarantine—Massachusetts, for example, requires a six-month quarantine. For years, organizations like the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society in Fall River, Massachusetts, have had to quarantine cats brought in for Trap-Neuter-Return with wounds of unknown origin for half a year in accordance with state law, to make sure the cats are not killed unnecessarily for testing.

Outdated rabies laws cost cats’ lives

This distinction between observation for vaccinated cats and immediate killing for testing on unvaccinated cats underscores the importance of keeping accurate rabies vaccine records for feral cat colonies. Even though they are still "unowned," rabies testing is at the discretion of animal control, so it could be the difference between life and death.

Even for previously vaccinated animals, rabies laws don’t reflect the full effectiveness of vaccines. Evidence shows that even a single rabies vaccine can last much longer than the once yearly booster shots that many local laws require, says Julie Levy, DVM, PhD, at the University of Florida in Gainesville. The CDC compendium recommends that animals with expired vaccines be assessed on a case-by-case basis to determine if they need to be tested, but they miss the point—a healthy animal should never die on a whim.

Quarantining animals for six months or killing them for unnecessary testing is cruel and costly. Rabies laws that encourage killing must be changed to reflect the small number of positive tests in domestic animals and the scientific evidence that vaccines work for much longer than the law recognizes.