Putnam Schedules Rabies Vaccine Clinic To Protect Pets, People

BREWSTER, NY — A free rabies clinic for Putnam pets is scheduled for March 26.

Rabies has the highest death rate of all known diseases, which is why the Putnam County Department of Health, along with local health departments across New York State, is charged with the critical public health work of protecting people from the dangerous virus.

Protecting against rabies is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year task. Last year, for example, the health department investigated 345 possible rabies exposures. Of those, staff determined 27 people had a known or high-risk exposure.

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Putnam County Health Commissioner Michael J. Nesheiwat, MD, said the 27 people exposed in 2021 required prompt treatment — which is a series of shots.

“This rabies post-exposure prophylaxis, or RPEP, must be administered between the time of exposure and the appearance of symptoms because the disease has a nearly 100 percent fatality rate once symptoms develop,” he said. “Early rabies symptoms may include fever, headache, weakness and abnormal sensations at the site of the bite. As the disease progresses it impacts cerebral function. Anxiety, confusion, and agitation, then delirium, hallucinations and abnormal behaviors follow.

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“Reaching out to the health department to determine risk must be done immediately after exposure so that, if necessary, medical treatment is quickly initiated. The risks are just too high,” he said.

PCDOH staff deploy multiple initiatives to keep residents and their pets safe.

One proven way to prevent human cases of rabies is to reduce cases in both domestic and wild animals. Three times a year, the health department organizes free rabies vaccination clinics for Putnam pets with the help of a local veterinarian, including one March 26, at Veterans Memorial Park from 10 am to 12 pm

Dogs, cats and ferrets are all eligible for this event, as well as two later ones in July and November. Further information for the March clinic is available online at the health department website.

Any mammal can get rabies, but it occurs more frequently in some species than others. Animals are sent for rabies testing when an investigation determines there is risk of rabies exposure in a person or domestic animal.

In 2021, cats and dogs made up approximately 25 percent of the animals that required testing for rabies in Putnam due to contact with a human. Most of these involved exposures to feral cats, who have been abandoned, and then live and reproduce in the wild. Bats however account for nearly all other potential exposures for people in Putnam, close to 75 percent. Raccoons, skunks, and foxes have also tested positive in Putnam, but less frequently.

These numbers are the reason behind the Putnam County Department of Health’s support and involvement in a “Trap-Neuter-Release” program for cats and the “Capture-the-Bat” initiative.

The trap, neuter and release or “TNR” concept is a humane and effective approach to care for feral and stray cats, a practice that has decades of success behind it. The cats are captured, neutered and released after being vaccinated against rabies.

Scientific studies show that TNR improves the lives of feral cats and their relationships with people who live near them. It also decreases the size of feral cat colonies and the potential for human rabies exposure. The health department has partnered with Putnam AdvoCats, Inc. to create a feral cat task force to implement this work and address this growing health concern in Putnam.

While cat and dog exposures tend to occur year-round, encounters with bats increase in spring and summer when bats are most active. In fact, last summer the need for bat testing began rising in April and peaked in the months from July through September. During these three summer months, 28 bats were captured after potential human contact, accounting for more than half the year’s total.

“Despite higher numbers in the spring and summer, it is important to realize that bat encounters happen year-round,” said Marianne Burdick, MPH, associate public health sanitarian, who supervises the rabies control program at the Putnam County Department of Health. “Bat populations increase in the warmer weather, but bats can slip into a home anytime time of year.”

In addition to coordinating the immunization of pets, the health department promotes awareness on how to capture a bat safely if found inside. This is particularly important if the bat is found after being in a room with a sleeping person, who may have been bitten and infected without knowing it. The bite mark is usually small and easy to miss. A video demonstrating how to capture the animal is posted on both the Putnam County and New York State health department websites.

Responding round the clock to calls from residents who have may have been exposed to rabies and providing post-exposure, preventative care when indicated is central to preventing deaths from rabies. The health department’s public health sanitarians are knowledgeable and experienced and can determine a resident’s risk in a variety of situations—including exposure through a bite or scratch from a bat or other wild animal, or from someone’s pet. Wild animals if captured are tested immediately after an exposure rather than held for quarantine and observation. Pets on the other hand are routinely quarantined for observation to see if rabies develops.

The health department number to report all animal bites or contact with wild animals is 845-808-1390. After hours or on weekends or holidays, call this number and press “3” for the environmental health hotline. Health department personnel will return your call. If a family pet encounters a wild animal, the health department should also be notified promptly. Residents should not handle an exposed pet without instructions from the health department and the use of rubber gloves.

Now that warmer weather and longer days are arriving, more people will be spending time outdoors. Combine this with springtime wildlife births and baby animal sightings and it is easy to understand why more rabies exposures occur this time of year. “Wildlife is best left alone by residents,” says Ms. Burdick, a staunch wildlife advocate. “Baby animals are rarely abandoned by their mothers and in need of rescue,” she continues. “Feeding, touching, or removing wildlife from their natural environment can cause more harm than good. If the person is scratched or exposed to the saliva, it costs the animal its life when tested. No one wants this. It is much better to leave all wild animals alone.”

If a resident feels certain an animal is injured or in need of assistance, the best path is to call a wildlife rehabilitator. These professionals are licensed and trained to assess the situation and care for orphaned or injured wildlife. The New York State Department of Conservation provides wildlife health information online and a database to search for local wildlife rehabilitators, depending on what type of animal is in question. For more information visit the NYS DEC website.

The mission of the Putnam County Department of Health, nationally accredited by the Public Health Accreditation Board (PHAB), is to improve and protect the health of the Putnam County community, composed of nearly 100,000 residents. Core services include community health assessment, disease surveillance and control, emergency preparedness, environmental health protection, family health promotion and health education. For more information, please visit our County website at www.putnamcountyny.com, or visit our social media sites on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @PutnamHealthNY.

The Putnam County Department of Health spearheads public health efforts to prevent rabies transmission by working with multiple partners.

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