Hamilton cat tests positive for rabies; link to raccoon strain suspected

Officials suspect a Hamilton cat that tested positive for rabies earlier this week may be infected with a strain that made a surprise reappearance in southern Ontario after a decade-long hiatus.

The cat, which was found dead, is the second case of domestic animal rabies the city in more than two decades, public health officials said.

Hamilton Public Health Services said it was notified of the test results Monday by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and is working to determine whether any humans came in contact with the cat.

The agency is asking anyone who may have lost, abandoned, fed or come in contact with a male adult orange tabby cat in the rural area of Glanbrook between Jan. 22 and Jan. 30 to get in touch to see whether they need a rabies post-exposure vaccine.

One person has reached out to public health officials in connection with the case, said Susan Harding-Cruz, manager of vector-borne diseases for Hamilton Public Health Services.

Until last summer, no domestic animals had tested positive for rabies in the city since 1993, Harding-Cruz said.

A cat found last August was shown to have the raccoon strain of the disease, which made a resurgence in December 2015 for the first time in 10 years.

"We're dealing with, certainly, an outbreak of rabies in land animals and we want people to be aware that there is now a real potential for them to spread into cats," she said.

People should protect their pets by not leaving them outside unattended -- and be mindful of their own health, she said. "The best thing is to stay away from wild animals, stay away from unknown animals, including cats and dogs," she said.

Officials have said the disease made its way into Ontario from the U.S., suggesting a rabid raccoon hitchhiked from New York State, thus avoiding a barrier of vaccines set up by the province.

The virus was discovered after two dogs got into a fight with an aggressive raccoon in the back of a Hamilton animal control van.

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has since air-dropped and hand-delivered hundreds of thousands of vaccine baits in an effort to control the outbreak, which it aims to eliminate by the end of 2020.

Last year, there were 288 confirmed cases of rabies in the province, 255 of them raccoon-strain, said Chris Davies, the ministry's head of wildlife research. Most of the raccoon strain was found in raccoons and skunks, though it was also found in animals such as a fox and a llama, he said.

Thirty cases were of bat-strain rabies and three were of fox-strain, he said.

Public health officials said they believe the second cat likely carried the raccoon strain as well, and test results are expected next week.