Multiple people were sent to the doctor this week for possible exposure to rabies after a stray cat found near a Beaufort bar tested positive for the disease.
The cat contracted the disease after a fight with a raccoon, Beaufort County Animal Services Director Tallulah Trice said. The incident renewed calls from Trice for measures to vaccinate raccoons and help prevent the spread of the disease.
The chances of contracting rabies are lower than being attacked by a shark, Trice said. But she added that even the possibility of exposure requires a person to be checked by a doctor, an expensive and time-consuming process.
"Yes, not many people die of rabies anymore, because we've got a lot of it under control," Trice said, "but if you look at the cost of treatment, it's high and it's preventable."
The cat was the fifth animal to test positive for rabies in Beaufort County this year, matching the number of confirmed cases in the county in all of last year, state health officials said in a news release. Thirty-nine animals have tested positive for the disease statewide this year.
A fox in the Bluffton area was determined to be rabid June 12. A Beaufort County resident was referred to the doctor a few days later for possible exposure.
The infected cat is believed to have had kittens that live near Cry Babies Tavern on Boundary Street, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said in the release. DHEC is working with local animal control officers to find the animals. Officials don't know whether the kittens carry rabies until they are caught and tested.
A permitted feral cat colony lives near Cry Babies where the rabid cat was found, Trice said. Cat colonies in the county are permitted so that animal officials can ensure they are vaccinated, spayed or neutered and properly monitored.
The infected stray cat had been brought to the area by someone and wasn't vaccinated before fighting with the raccoon, Trice said.
Rabies is usually spread by a bite, said David Vaughan, director of rabies prevention for DHEC. But it can also be spread by saliva coming in contact with open wounds or eyes, nose and mouth, he said.
The agency recommends giving wild or stray animals space.
"If you see an animal in need, avoid touching it and contact someone trained in handling animals, such as your local animal control officer or wildlife rehabilitator," Vaughan said in the DHEC release.
DHEC also advises pet owners to ensure animals are up to date on rabies vaccines and to see a veterinarian if a pet has been in a fight or incurs mysterious wounds.
Trice has advocated for a program used in several states in which packets of vaccine are dropped from the air or distributed by hand in problem areas. Raccoons eat the packets and ingest the vaccine.
Federal wildlife officials distribute about 6.5 million of the baits each year in select states in an effort to contain raccoon rabies, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A raccoon vaccination program in the eastern United States has prevented the spread off rabies west of the Appalachian Mountains, the agency says.