Hunter, an outdoor cat, peers through the woods on Mulberry Run Court in Stephens City. Resident Chrissie Sison and her family have caught, neutered and vaccinated 11 of the 13 community cats that live in their neighborhood and have provided shelters for them in their backyard.

The problem of rabies in a rural community isn’t an easy one to fix, and animal experts are divided on the best ways to help feral cats.

For reasons of rabies prevention, Dr. Colin Greene, health director for the Lord Fairfax Health District of the Virginia Department of Health, said people shouldn’t feed outdoor cats that aren’t theirs.

So far this year around the Northern Shenandoah Valley, the Lord Fairfax Health District has reported 22 cases of rabies, four of them cats. The cats were found in Front Royal, Winchester, Edinburg and north of Strasburg.

The other rabid animals were six foxes, 11 raccoons and one skunk.

Though previous years have seen more reports than this, Greene said that at only halfway through the year so far, 22 reports is high.

The valley had 29 reports for all of 2018 and 17 total for 2017.

“I think the highest number previously was 30,” he said. That would make this year’s trend “a 30- to 50-percent increase,” he said.

However, he added, “It could be that more of them are being reported.”

Domestic cats and dogs are required by Virginia law to be vaccinated against rabies, even if they stay inside. After receiving the first vaccination and then a booster shot the following year, cats and dogs can receive a three-year vaccination, according to the Virginia Department of Health’s Guidelines for Rabies Prevention and Control from September 2017.

Many animal welfare groups support initiatives like trap, neuter, release (TNR) programs in which community members capture feral cats to have them neutered and vaccinated before returning them to where they were found. These precautions are said to allow feral cats the option of remaining outdoors in controlled settings, where they aren’t adding to the homeless population and are also protected against rabies.

Opponents to TNR programs wonder what happens when a rabies vaccination immunity runs out. They also fear that cat colonies could attract even more cats to the area, becoming a nuisance and endangering local residents and their pets.

The problem with many feral and stray cats, Greene said, is that they have no one to care for them and keep them safe from injury and illness. Domestic animals like cats, dogs and ferrets that aren’t vaccinated against rabies can easily contract the disease from infected wildlife and spread it among themselves.

“My main concern from the Health Department is the risk of spreading rabies,” said Greene.

A bite or scratch from a feral cat is just as potentially dangerous as a bite or scratch from a raccoon, fox, skunk or bat.

Symptoms of rabies take weeks to begin, but once they do, he said, “It’s miserable for the cat.”

Rabies attacks the nervous system, causing confusion in infected individuals. Domesticated animals become unreasonably aggressive and wild animals might not show fear of humans. These animals could look disoriented, circling an area in a haphazard way or chewing on objects that aren’t food, such as their leg. A classic sign of rabies is foaming at the mouth, which happens because the animal has trouble swallowing.

Vaccinated animals are protected against rabies, though veterinarians will likely recommend a precautionary booster shot for a pet that has encountered a wild animal suspected of having rabies.

Rabies is almost always fatal to humans and animals once symptoms have begun. But if treated early in the disease, humans have a near-perfect chance of recovering.

To help reduce the number of feral cats in the area, Greene suggested communities not promote areas where cats tend to congregate, otherwise known as cat colonies.

“I don’t think they’re a good idea,” he said. “They’re essentially homeless camps for cats.”

But while cats may group together, he said it’s not as much for socializing as it is for food.

“It’s not a colony in the sense of a pack of dogs,” he said. “They’re there because people are feeding them. If there’s a point source of food, then cats will hang around.”

Similarly opposed to the idea of community cats, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has questioned the benefits of TNR programs.

Suggesting in a 2013 blog post on its website www.peta.org/blog/tnr-spreading-rabies that TNR programs might be spreading rabies by encouraging more cats to congregate in a small area, PETA suggested that it’s more humane to capture such cats and find them homes instead of returning them to their outdoor homes. Cats that can’t be re-homed would suffer less pain through euthanasia than by trying to survive on the streets, PETA suggested.

“Not only do TNR programs expose cats to the many dangers of life on the streets — including being hit by cars; attacked by dogs, wildlife, or cruel people; and infested with parasites — they also expose them to deadly contagious diseases, such as rabies, that can pose a threat to their human caretakers and local wildlife as well,” the blog post says.

Alley Cat Allies, an outdoor cat advocacy group in Bethesda, Maryland, disagrees, writing at its website www.alleycat.org/our-work/trap-neuter-return that TNR is “the humane approach to addressing community cat populations. … It saves cats’ lives and is effective. TNR improves the lives of cats, addresses community concerns, reduces complaints about cats, and stops the breeding cycle. TNR improves the co-existence between outdoor cats and humans in our shared environment. This is why so many cities are adopting it.”

Greene said he lumps feral cats in with the likes of raccoons and foxes because their independence allows for easy interaction with wild animals that might carry rabies. Furthermore, if they haven’t been captured by a TNR group or didn’t previously have an owner, they’re likely not to be vaccinated.

But feral doesn’t mean the cats aren’t cared for.

Some colony caretakers keep up with the cats they’ve had neutered and vaccinated, said Meghan Bowers, executive director of the Humane Society of Warren County.

“If an animal has been part of a TNR program, they would have been administered a rabies vaccination at the time of their surgery,” she said. “You can easily tell if an animal has been part of a TNR program because their ear will be tipped at the time of surgery to make them easily recognizable from a safe distance.”

She said she knows of a few cat colony caretakers who ensure rabies vaccines are kept up to date for cats in their care by re-trapping and vaccinating the cats.

Those interested in getting feral cats off the street might consider taking them as barn cats — an idea that Greene and Bowers both offered.

Barn cats are working cats, said Greene. They keep mice populations in check while also enjoying their independence.

“The Health Department is more about not spreading rabies,” he said. “And we’d like both people and animals to have pleasant, agreeable lives.”

Bowers, who explained feral cats as the “unsocialized offspring of stray cats,” said feral cats are unlikely to be successfully adopted into a home.

“When we have one, we promote them as possible barn cats, where they have shelter, food and water, but are not confined within a home,” she said. “Feral cats are not domesticated, and generally do not thrive in a home environment, nor do they thrive in a shelter, confined to a small kennel.”

Humans have played a large role in creating feral colonies, she said, by not spaying and neutering their pets. Cats that run away from home or are abandoned then may give birth in the wild, building up feral cat communities.

“An un-spayed female can have as many as 170 kittens in her lifetime, which can begin reproducing at as young as 4 months old,” she said.

“It will take a long time, and we will need to educate a lot of people about the importance of spaying and neutering, but if everyone works together, we can achieve our vision of every pet being a wanted pet.”

Contact Josette Keelor at jkeelor@nvdaily.com