I attended a meeting yesterday with the Northwest Project Grass grazing meeting in Grove City, Pa., to hear Dr. Karen Martin, a veterinarian with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, who was there to talk about rabies in cattle.

I know what you are going to say: “A cow can get rabies?” Yes, they can. In fact, seven did in the state of Pennsylvania in 2010.

I’m not going to dwell on how cattle get rabies because I’m writing a story for next week’s Farm and Dairy on the subject. But what I do want to write about is the rabies disease and how cats and dogs play a big role in it.

One was that a dog should be regarded as an important part of the farm and cats need to be vaccinated against rabies. And many are probably wondering how that has anything to do with rabies and cattle, but the cats and other animals living in the outdoors can spread the virus by contact.

I was surprised to learn that 56 cats in Pennsylvania were diagnosed with rabies. 56? Yes, 56. There were only four dogs diagnosed with rabies. The biggest culprit is raccoons. Over 217 of them were diagnosed with the rabies vaccine in 2010.

Martin told the group that one thing she urges everyone no matter where they live is not to touch a raccoon. She told them don’t hug, cradle it or even kiss it as she has seen some people do. Just by touching a sick raccoon can spread the virus. She said the only safe raccoon is the one that runs away from you. ( I don’t know about many people, but I have no plans on close contact with a raccoon in the near future!)

That number got me thinking that if that’s how many were diagnosed, how many went undiagnosed? How many raccoons die in the woods and are never discovered or how many are killed and never tested? How many cats are dropped off at farms, don’t get the rabies vaccine, are exposed to the virus and die off without anyone really noticing?

Let’s face it, according to Martin, the only cats we have to have vaccinated are the ones that live indoors with us, so that creates a lot of cats that aren’t vaccinated.

Now, the dog thing. Who would think that would be the first form of protection on the farm against the deadly virus? I have to admit I wouldn’t have thought about it this way. The dog patrols the perimeter of the property generally and will hunt out animals that are ill or rabid. The key to make sure your dog is vaccinated so they are protected from the virus.

One thing that always makes me smile is the greeting from the dogs at the farms I visit for stories. Farmers are always afraid I’m not a dog person as the dog greets me as I jump from my vehicle. But I am! I love a good greeting as they come up and smell me and investigate me to make sure I’m OK to be there.

Now, I think I will be a little more cautious as to pet their snouts when I visit because the virus is spread through saliva, but I will also feel a little relief knowing there is a dog on the property as I walk around. It may mean a less of a chance of an encounter with an animal with rabies.

With the increase in the number of rabies cases in Pennsylvania, even us here in Ohio should be more aware of an animal acting strangely. Don’t assume, it is just ill and maybe you can help it especially if it is a raccoon, fox, skunk or groundhog. ( I would especially refrain from kissing and hugging it as Martin suggested!) It could be rabies and result in worse consequences including death for the human.

As the New Year holiday approaches and we start to make resolutions, I think we all need to vaccinate our barn cats and make sure our dogs are up to date on their rabies vaccination.

Kristy Foster Seachrist lives in Columbiana County raising sheep and horses with her husband, Kurt. She earned her degree from Youngstown State University and has worked in both print and broadcast journalism.
Kristy Foster Seachrist
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