By Jon Bishop
AYER — “I think that people (assume) rabies has gone the way of smallpox,” said Jane Morriss, Board of Health administrative assistant.
She and Pamela Papineau, chairman of the Health Board, want you to know that it hasn’t.
They said that most dog owners know the rabies vaccination process, but those who own cats, especially of the “outdoor” variety, are often unfamiliar.
“Cat’s aren’t licensed,” Papineau said. “There isn’t that kind of driver.”
One such example: a family in Ayer had to quarantine its cat after it came in contact with a bat. The cat’s rabies vaccinations had lapsed, Papineau said.
“You have to assume the worst-case scenario,” she said.
Both she and Morriss warned that any animal could become exposed if a wild animal gets into the house.
“People think that, if they have an indoor animal, they’re home free,” Morriss said.
Papineau said that the Commonwealth provides municipalities with a rabies control plan.
“This is a very valuable document for us,” she said. “We rely a lot on this document.”
Massachusetts, which has a Division of Animal Health, supplies rabies information, she said, adding that “they do give us some pretty clear protocols.”
According to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services website, there is a four-category process for dealing with dogs and cats that have been exposed to animals.
Category 1, which is direct contact with or a confirmed bite from a rabid animal, recommends that, if the dog or cat is vaccinated, the owner must immediately get it a booster shot, notify the local director of health and the local animal inspector, and confine the animal for 45 days. If the dog or cat is not vaccinated, it must either be euthanized or isolated for three months, confined for three months, and then vaccinated. Owners must also notify the local director of health and the local animal inspector.
The animal inspector issues rabies quarantines, Papineau said.
She said that there is no blood test for rabies. Medical professionals instead diagnose it from a brain analysis.
Papineau said that, about 10 to 12 years ago, there was a high number of rabies cases in Massachusetts. The virus eventually “burns itself out.”
Still, “you never really know where you are in the cycle,” she said.
According to Papineau, the animals in Massachusetts most likely to carry rabies are raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats.
But she stressed that “any mammal can get rabies” — including, of course, people. If you’ve had contact with a wild animal, you should report it to the Board of Health, and, if you are bitten, you should notify your physician, she said.
She and Morriss said people often forget that the natural world is right next door.
According to the Department of Public Health 2014 quarterly report, which is found on its website, out of 1,157 animals tested, 62, or 5.4 percent, was rabid.