Animal Hospital: Good Intentions Can Mean Death for Feral Cats

As you walk about you may notice homeless cats. If you are a cat person you know that an average fertile female cat can have 3 litters in a single year, with most litters producing 4-6 kittens. Perhaps you even realize that most of these cats will never find homes. They will never be protected against diseases, and the cycle will continue. Being an animal lover, you want to help.

You decide that something needs to be done. So you humanely trap one of the stray or feral cats in your community to have it spayed or neutered and vaccinated. Once inside the cage, the cat becomes violent. It is terrified, feels trapped, and is not comfortable around people. It lashes out at you as you attempt to transport the cage to your local animal hospital. You are bitten in the process.

Now imagine, what would you think next?  You have been bitten by an unfamiliar, unvaccinated cat. You begin to worry about whether or not the cat may have a transferable disease, such as rabies. You call your local health department to find out if you are at risk. The health department tells you the cat must be tested for rabies.

Now your good intentions have led to a death sentence for the cat. This is an all too common situation that I have seen many times at work. You may be asking yourself why is testing the cat for rabies a bad thing? If you are asking yourself that question, it is further proof that people not knowing how animals are tested for rabies is part of the problem. Rabies is a virus that affects the nervous tissues, meaning it cannot be detected in blood, urine, or feces. To get an accurate diagnosis, the brain must be tested.

Rabies is a viral infection that affects the nervous system, there is no cure and it is fatal in animals. People are usually infected by animals and if not treated immediately, the disease almost always results in death.

Because rabies is such a serious virus, when an animal needs to be tested (usually because it has come in contact with a person or domesticated animal), the most accurate test available is required. That is why the brain is always tested. To do this, the animal must be euthanized, the head must be cut off, and then sent out for testing.

The reason this bothers me so much is because most of the time these deaths could have been prevented. Every stray and or feral cat that we have had to check for rabies needed to be tested because people were bitten by them. How were they bitten one might ask? The short answer is they were handling a cat that they shouldn’t have been touching.

Many stray cats are comfortable around people, as they may have belonged to someone at some point, but feral cats should be considered wild animals. They have had no contact with people and will therefore be very aggressive towards people when they feel cornered or trapped. Strays can be aggressive in the same situation as well. Even domesticated cats will bite, and if they are unvaccinated or not up to date, the same problem arises.


In the cases I have seen at my job, the people that were bitten by these cats were always trying to help them. Many people trap stray and feral cats, have them spayed or neutered and vaccinated and re-release them. This is a very noble thing to do, it decreases the already large stray population and protects them from illnesses like rabies.

But in doing this, especially when people get too comfortable or confident, things go wrong. People get bitten and it is only after they have been bitten that people worry about whether or not the animal is rabid. Why does no one ask themselves this before handling an unfamiliar cat?

In some circumstances, the animal can be quarantined for 10 days and watched to make sure there are no symptoms or signs of rabies, but every case is different and that isn’t always an option. When the people, who only had good intentions for the animal, find out that quarantining isn’t available they are always upset. They only wanted to help but because of their lack of knowledge and poor handling skills, the animal will now be euthanized and tested for rabies. If it had just been left alone, it would still be alive.

Euthanizing an animal that is most likely healthy and rabies-free because of human error is upsetting enough, but for me, because I’m rabies vaccinated, I usually have to assist in the testing procedures so the emotional toll is compounded. Not everyone at my job is vaccinated and normally someone in my position wouldn’t be but because I was exposed to a rabid, one-eyed cat while it was under our care at the hospital, I am. Human rabies vaccines are incredibly expensive and involved which is why being vaccinated is not common.

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) over 90% of reported rabid animals occur in wildlife, such as raccoons, skunks and bats. In the United States about 300 rabid cats are reported every year out of the estimated feral population of 60 – 150 million. In the four years that I’ve been working at the hospital the only cat to test positive for rabies was the one I was exposed to.

Should I feel sorry for the people behind this? I don’t think so. Every time this happens it takes everything I have in me not to tell these people what I really think of them. When they are crying and saying how sorry they are, I just want to coldly respond with, “You should be sorry. This cat is going to die because of you.” Maybe if I actually said it people would understand the severity of their actions.

I have no sympathy for the people who inadvertently cause the deaths of these cats. I have seen too much. How many more have to die because people choose to handle cats that they shouldn’t be touching? How many more people will worry about rabies only after being bitten by an unfamiliar cat? I don’t have the answer to that but I hope it decreases as a result of this article.

I understand that people want to help these animals. As I stated before, it is a noble thing to do.  But doing it right is the only thing that will save innocent cats from being killed. If you want to trap a cat to have it fixed and vaccinated, trap it and let professionals handle it. Do not under any circumstances touch the cat, or even get close enough to give it the opportunity to potentially attack you. Wear gloves and other protective gear when handling the cage in case the cat lunges at you through the holes.

If you do put food out for stray cats, leave it at that. Know that they will continue to come for back for food, because yes, it is hard for them to find food, but remember that as friendly as it may be, you do not know what it has been exposed to. If you want to be able to touch a stray you are feeding, trap it and have it vaccinated (again, safely and without touching it) so in the future if it were to ever bite you, at least you know it is vaccinated and you are not at risk.

I will never forget the faces of the cats that have been the victims of these situations. I still picture the young, friendly stray tomcat with the beautiful coat that we had to kill because he playfully bit the woman who was feeding him, and she only thought about rabies after the fact. He was negative.


Chantal O'Connor
A self-proclaimed non-enthusiast, Chantal lives on the wrong side of the Hudson River in upstate New York. She is a cat person at heart and prefers the past over the present. Her free time is spent reading biographies, watching black and white films, and drinking Scotch. Chantal responds to any form of optimism with a genuine, yet suspicious "hmmm."
  • AlexisO

    This is incredibly sad but I appreciate it very much since I had no idea about the rabies testing procedure.

  • JenniS

    I didn’t know anything about this testing procedure, but I never try to touch a strange animal, particularly strays.

    This made me teary. I’ve always had a soft spot for cats. :(

  • MGM444

    Do you have any suggestions for the trap, neuter, and release programs? I think there are specific humane traps that you can use that don’t require any handling by the non professionals.

    • AlexisO

      Great question! Since TNR Programs seem to vary immensely by location (some private veterinary practices offer these as well) it’s best to do a Google search for your location. HSUS has a map by state you can click on to find feral cat programs – these may or may not be TNR.