Following the death of his cat, a Front Royal resident is trying to help his neighbors keep their pets safe from rabies attacks.
Holland Daniels, who lives on First Street, said his 15-year-old Maine coon cat, Cosmo, was fatally injured by a raccoon on May 30. Cosmo was current on his rabies vaccine and also received a booster shot after the attack, Daniels said, but he died from his injuries on June 2.
Daniels said he learned too late the warning signs that rabies can present in raccoons and other animals, so he’s hoping that telling his story will help other pet owners avoid a similar situation.
He first saw the raccoon around 2 p.m. May 30, when he heard his neighbor’s dogs “going berserk.”
When Daniels saw the raccoon, he was surprised by its behavior.
“The thing about the raccoon is he came straight toward me,” Daniels said.
The raccoon wasn’t foaming at the mouth, which is a classic symptom of rabies in its late stages. But it also wasn’t afraid of him, as wild animals should be.
Daniels was holding a packing tube and used it to try to push the raccoon away from him, but it was persistent in trying to engage him. Finally, it turned and ran toward a boxwood, where Cosmo was hiding. The raccoon chased the cat, but didn’t catch him.
The raccoon then wandered around the yard, circling the house and eventually returning to the porch. Daniels again used the packing tube to push it away, and it finally left.
Daniels said he normally brings his cats in at night, but Cosmo didn’t return along with his other cat Ziggy that night. It was too dark to search for him, but the next morning he noticed there were tufts of fur on the porch.
As a Maine coon, Cosmo was a big cat, topping out at about 18 pounds. Maine coons are known for their sweet dispositions, and that Cosmo was “very well known in our neighborhood.”
Though Daniels said Cosmo has been in catfights before, “never did he just disappear like that.”
“He had been hiding, which never happened.”
Cosmo returned that afternoon with injuries to his back legs — “probably more scratches than bites.” Daniels took him to the vet to address the injuries. After talking with the Sheriff’s Office and the Warren County Health Department, he returned to the vet on Saturday to get Cosmo a booster shot.
But Cosmo’s injuries were too severe. Daniels said his cat was developing an infection and that the vet couldn’t treat it. Cosmo died on Sunday, three days after the attack.
Though rabies isn’t especially common in the region, the Lord Fairfax Health District of the Virginia Department of Health has reported several wild animal attacks in recent weeks. The local district, which covers Winchester and the counties of Warren, Page, Shenandoah, Frederick and Clarke, has reported seven rabid animals in Warren County. This was the eighth.
The last two were a fox found off Boyd’s Mill Lane near Browntown, and a raccoon recovered in the Gloucester Road/Richmond Road region in Front Royal, which were involved in separate attacks with dogs on May 27.
Although this raccoon wasn’t captured, Health Director Dr. Colin Greene said on Friday that from its behavior, it can be considered rabid. He said anyone who encountered a raccoon near First Street on or around May 30 should seek medical attention immediately.
Any physical contact with a raccoon should be reported, he said, since raccoons are the animal most commonly found with rabies.
“This one is especially dangerous,” he said, because of its behavior.
“This was a raccoon out at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. … I mean, that’s not normal raccoon behavior.”
Greene said the same would apply to any animal that rushes or attacks a person. Foxes, skunks and bats are some of the most common animals found to have rabies, though the department has also had reports of groundhogs and cows with rabies.
In the case of raccoons, he said, “Even if they are not acting bizarrely, it’s not worth taking the risk. That person should seek treatment right away.”
Greene said that if the raccoon did have rabies, by now it will have died from the disease. Symptoms only present in the last few days of an animal’s life, he said.
Rabies is highly treatable if discovered early in the infection, Greene said. It takes weeks for symptoms to begin, and if untreated, the disease is fatal in mammals, including humans.
If a vaccinated animal is attacked, Greene has said the district recommends a 45-day observation period for the animal to show symptoms.
Rabies attacks the nervous system, causing disorientation and paralysis in animals. They might foam at the mouth because they can’t swallow, and they might chew on objects that aren’t food in a practice called “pica.”
Symptoms vary depending on the animal. Wild animals might not be afraid of humans, while normally friendly pets might be aggressive. Other symptoms are fever, seizures, lack of coordination, a dropped jaw, a change in the tone of a dog’s bark, and severe or irrational fear of water.
A pet that attacks someone and is suspected of having rabies will be watched for 10 days, Greene said. If it’s still alive and well 10 days later, he said, “it wasn’t spreading rabies at the time of the attack, and the person who was attacked isn’t in danger.”
Cats, dogs, ferrets and horses are the most at risk of being infected by a rabid animal and need to be vaccinated, he said.
Greene said people might be wary of alerting the health department of a suspect animal for fear of their pet’s safety, but he assured that it’s not the health department’s job to seize animals.
“The health department doesn’t take people’s pets away,” he said.
Daniels said if he had known the symptoms to look for when he spotted the raccoon behaving so strangely, he would have reported the animal.
“I would have immediately called 911,” he said.
A resident of Front Royal for 35 years, Daniels said he’s seen many raccoons on his property, even on his porch, and never had an issue.
“This has never happened,” he said.
His main goal in telling his story is to warn others, so they know the signs of rabies and can recognize them to protect themselves and their pets.
“I believe education is important,” Daniels said. “Especially I’ve been trying to warn all of our neighbors.”
He’s alerting the community “so people can be educated about unusual behavior.”