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Rabies scare urges pet owners into action

Tuesday - 12/31/2013, 4:04pm  ET

Cat (WTOP/Sarah Beth Hensley)
Rabies cases are on the rise in Maryland and Virginia. Pet owners are urged to keep their cats and dogs indoors and report any strays to animal control.(WTOP/Sarah Beth Hensley)

WASHINGTON - Pet owners wary of the growing number of rabies cases popping up in the area can take steps to keep their dogs or cats safe.

Rabies, a virus that attacks the nervous system of animals and humans, is an incredibly dangerous disease and exposure to rabies can be fatal.

In Prince William County, Va. alone, 10 rabid animals were found in 2013.

The last reported case of the year came on Dec. 20 -- a young male cat from the Woodbridge area. That case was unusual, say experts, because rabies is exceedingly rare in domestic animals, particularly because pet owners are typically good about getting their pets vaccinated.

"It is required by law and it is just good preventative medicine," says veterinarian Katy Nelson, who's known as Dr. Pawz and hosts "The Pet Show" with Dr. Katy on News Channel 8.

The rabid cat in Prince William County was likely not up-to-date on its rabies shot, surmised Nelson, who specializes in emergency veterinary medicine. She says immunization is the best defense against rabies.

In Maryland, D.C and Virginia, there are strong regulations for shots. But with rabies detected in the area, Nelson suggests taking some extra precautions.

In addition, she says it's best not to let your pets go outside unless someone is there to monitor them. Cats, especially, like to wander, and Nelson warns "they could come in contact with a rabid animal."

If your pet does go outside, and comes back in with an injury from an unknown animal, it's important to go to the vet immediately. There, the veterinarian can assess the injury, determine whether a rabies booster is needed, and perhaps even recommend a quarantine, depending on local rules.

Nelson says quick action is needed because rabies is an incredibly dangerous disease. It is a virus that attacks the nervous system of animals and humans exposure to rabies can be fatal.

It's also a good idea to be vigilant and keep wild animals away from homes by blocking openings and securing trash cans with tight-fitting lids. Stray animals should be reported to animal control.

Meanwhile, the Prince William Health District is urging anyone who thinks he or his pet had contact with the rabid cat found on Dec. 20, near Powells Landing Circle, to contact it at 703-792-5363.

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