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Catonsville rabies case led to 'very urgent' weekend for local government

Left, surveillence footage shows the 'Good Samaritan' who brought what he believed was an injured cat to an animal hospital. Right, an image of the cat that was found to be infected with rabies.
Left, surveillence footage shows the 'Good Samaritan' who brought what he believed was an injured cat to an animal hospital. Right, an image of the cat that was found to be infected with rabies. (Courtesy photos / Baltimore County Animal Services)

A man identified by Baltimore County only as a good Samaritan dropped off a stray cat Oct. 25 at a Catonsville animal hospital and was out the door a short time later.

Because the man did not leave his name or any contact information, he set off a “very urgent” search over the weekend after the cat tested positive for rabies, said Dr. Lucia Donatelli, bureau chief of the Prevention, Protection and Preparedness unit in the Baltimore County Department of Health and Human Services.

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“This is the first time that I know of that there was a specific person whose identity that we did not know whose identity that we needed to find,” Donatelli said.

The case was urgent because rabies, if untreated, is fatal in humans and animals.

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The rabies virus can be transmitted from animals to humans through a break in the skin, said Dr. Paul Auwaerter, clinical director in the Division of Infectious Diseases at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.

From the bodily fluid of an animal, through the skin, the virus then enters the peripheral nervous system and travels toward the brain. The virus moves slowly, so depending on where a person is bitten or scratched, the disease can take days, weeks or even months to reach the brain, Auwaerter said.

Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe, a family store, remains a fixture in Catonsville since it opened in 1960 and attracts customers from throughout the mid-Atlantic region. The store sells guitars, ukuleles, mandolins, banjoes, upright basses and offers lessons and services the instruments.

“If the virus hasn’t traveled up the nerves to the brain, you have time to administer antibodies,” Auwaerter said. “However, if [a patient] starts having symptoms such as fever, or headache or they become very anxious, irritable, depressed, or the classic is hydrophobia, the fear of water, all those mean, unfortunately, that the virus is in the central nervous system. How long people live depends on supportive care. It’s usually a matter of days.”

In humans, rabies is fatal when it reaches the central nervous system because either the virus itself or a person’s immune system damages brain tissue, Auwaerter said.

When the stray cat tested positive for rabies, the Baltimore County Department of Health and Human Services mobilized to contact the man who had delivered the animal to the Catonsville facility.

Below is a timeline of what took place:

Thursday, Oct. 25

The stray cat was brought to Westview Animal Hospital, located at 5800 Johnnycake Road in Catonsville, at about 8 a.m., according to the health department.

The good Samaritan spent about three minutes in the animal hospital, according to Fred Cohen, a veterinarian and owner of the animal hospital. The man believed the cat, which he found in the 400 block of Winters Lane, was injured, Cohen said.

Security footage from inside the animal hospital “appears” to show the man being bitten by the stray cat while the receptionist was talking to a veterinarian in the back, said Cohen, who declined to share the security footage with a reporter, citing privacy concerns. (Some images from the footage were later released by Baltimore County.)

After turning the cat over to the animal hospital, the man left without giving his name or contact information.

“If [the man] had mentioned the cat bit or scratched him, we certainly would have been even more attuned to things,” Cohen said.

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Following standard protocol, the stray was turned over to Baltimore County Animal Services about 11:30 a.m. that same day.

Friday, Oct. 26

Friday morning, a veterinarian performing an examination on the stray cat noticed neurological symptoms that can be indicative of rabies, according to Donatelli. Cohen said his understanding of the situation was that the cat had an “altered gait,” which could explain why the good Samaritan thought the cat had been injured. The cat was also showing unprovoked aggression, Cohen said. Both are signs of rabies in animals.

The veterinarian determined the cat needed to be tested; because rabies is a neurological condition, testing for it once an animal shows symptoms requires euthanasia, Cohen said.

Test results came in around 3:30 p.m. the same day, showing the cat was infected with the rabies virus.

“As soon as we were notified that it came back positive, we immediately called the animal hospital to get as much information as possible, and a press release was issued,” Donatelli said.

Saturday, Oct. 27 and Sunday, Oct. 28

Over the weekend, the Baltimore County Police Department helped spread information related to the incident. At 4:46 p.m. Saturday, the police put out a press release describing the man as between 35 and 40, light skinned, with curly brown hair and wearing a red shirt.

At some point over the weekend, the good Samaritan was notified of the hunt to find him by a neighbor, Donatelli said. The neighbor saw local news reports referencing the incident, according to Donatelli.

Elyn Garret-Jones, a public information officer for the health department, said she was not exactly sure when the neighbor and the individual who found the cat spoke.

A good Samaritan who dropped off a rabid cat at the Westview Animal Hospital in Gwynn Oak has been located, according to Baltimore County police.

But around 11:30 a.m. Sunday, the man contacted the Baltimore County Health Department, and he was informed of the condition of the cat.

By Wednesday, Oct. 31, Garret-Jones and Donatelli were able to confirm that the individual had sought medical treatment for rabies.

An estimated 11 people might have been exposed to the rabies virus in this case, Garret-Jones said.

Donatelli said this sort of incident doesn’t occur often and that individuals need to consider the risk of rabies and other diseases before taking in or interacting with animals.

“I think the main thing is this good Samaritan thought that they were doing a good thing,” Donatelli said. “I just really want to emphasize that it’s very important to be wary and really consider your interactions with animals you don’t know.”

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