Rabies cases in wild animals occur each year, but the unusual, back-to-back confirmations of the virus in a dog and cat in the metro Augusta area have some officials concerned the disease could be on the rise.
“We know the rabies virus is alive and well, but you don’t usually see it in domestic animals,” said environmental health section manager Randy Wischard of the Richmond County Health Department.
Earlier this week, officials confirmed the disease in a stray cat that attacked and scratched a woman near Milledgeville and Kissingbower roads — the first such case in a cat in recent memory.
Although it is only the third rabies confirmation in the county this year, which is about average, the cat case follows confirmation of the disease in a Labrador retriever hit by a school bus in the Grovetown area Oct. 17.
The dog, a 2-year-old family pet that had not been vaccinated, bit one of several people who tried to render assistance after the accident, said Columbia County Animal Services Manager Linda Glascock.
It was euthanized and later tested positive for rabies.
“It’s the first dog case here in at least 25 or 30 years,” Glascock said. “People say it’s hard to believe, especially since this was a pet, with no symptoms, in a family with three children.”
So far this year, there have been just three rabies cases in Columbia County, including the dog. The other two involved raccoons.
By comparison, there were two cases last year — a raccoon and one bat — and seven cases in 2009, involving three foxes, three raccoons and one bat.
The highest number of cases — 12 — occurred in 2008. One of those cases involved a coyote, the only such occurrence statewide that year.
It is critical that pet owners maintain up-to-date immunizations, Glascock said. Cases where a pet that has not been vaccinated has been exposed to a rabid animal can result in having the pet euthanized.
“I tell people the key to everything is vaccination vaccination, vaccination,” Glascock said.
County officials are in the process of organizing a rabies vaccination clinic in early to mid December, in which pet owners can have their animals vaccinated for just $5. The time and date is not final, she said, but will be announced soon.
Aiken County in South Carolina is also a major center for rabies cases, according to data provided by Adam Myrick of the S.C. Department of Health & Environmental Control.
So far this year, eight confirmations place Aiken County tied with Abbeville County for the highest number in the state, with no reported cases this year in nearby Edgefield and McCormick counties.
Worldwide, about 97 percent of rabies cases come from dog bites. In the United States, however, animal control and vaccination programs have effectively eliminated domestic dogs as carriers, underscoring the unusual nature of the Columbia County case.
Rabies in humans is even rarer. During 2000-2008, a total of 27 cases of human rabies were reported in the United States (including one case in Georgia in 2000), according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Among them, 71 percent were associated with bats.