The Rabies Threat
(from the Maine Townsman, May 1996)
by Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

Recent state legislation requires animal control officers to respond to reports of any animal suspected of having rabies.

Was your Animal Control Officer (ACO) among the 200 who attended a rabies management workshop last month in Augusta?

If so, did they tell you about the spread of rabies by raccoons and fox into Maine in 1994 from the mid-Atlantic states? If so, did they tell you about the 1993 legislation that created new procedures for dealing with the dread disease, procedures that spell out increased responsibilities for your animal control officer?

If they didn't attend or if they did attend but failed to report back to you, then this article is for you. For it not only attempts to bring you up to speed on what the new laws and rules have to say about the responsibility of local government in controlling the spread of rabies, it also attempts to provide some practical suggestions for complying with them.

FIRST, SOME BACKGROUND

In anticipation of the arrival of the new strains of rabies, which had been moving north through the mid-Atlantic states during the 1980's, the Maine legislature in 1993 revised and amended existing Maine statutes - those mainly found in Titles 7 and 22 - to provide a framework for controlling rabies. 

Among other things, the changes called for the State (the Maine Department of Human Services, Bureau of Health, Division of Disease Control, in conjunction with the departments of Agriculture and Inland Fisheries) to develop "procedures" for dealing with animals--both domesticated and undomesticated--suspected of having rabies.

They also identified the local animal control officer as having the primary responsibility for seeing to it that those procedures were carried out. And, last but not least, they required the state to provide animal control officers with the necessary training to carry out those duties.

Since passage of Public Law 1993, Chapter 468 in 1993, the new strains of rabies carried by fox and raccoon have indeed moved into the southern part of Maine. That occurred in the late summer of 1994. There were 100 reported cases in 1995 and an expected doubling in number this year. The outbreak is currently making headlines in Cumberland, York and Oxford Counties. Before 1994, there were fewer than a half dozen confirmed cases of rabies in the state, according to Dr. Kathleen Gensheimer, state epidemiologist.

Since passage of the law, the procedures for responding to reports of an animal suspected of having rabies, procedures covering everything from transporting, to quarantining, to euthanizing, to testing of the animals suspected of having rabies have been developed and published in a 12-page brochure entitled: "State of Maine: Rules Governing Rabies Management." Since passage of the law, a "Rabies Work Group," made up of representatives from the departments of Human Services, Agriculture, Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, the Maine Animal Control Officers Association, and others, has developed and published a 77-page "Rabies Management Manual" for widespread distribution.

Since passage of the law, a half-day workshop, entitled "Municipalities Respond to Rabies Management Issues," sponsored by the Rabies Work Group and others, was conducted on April 3, 1996.

Those attending were given a crash course in rabies and rabies testing and rabies vaccination, the new legal requirements, and practical solutions for dealing with rabies. Did your ACO attend?

That said, we begin with a brief look at rabies.

A SHORT COURSE ON RABIES

According to the "Rabies Management Manual", exposure to the rabies virus can occur through a number of ways, including a bite or significant scratch from an infected animal, as the virus lives in the saliva (spit) and other body fluid of animals.

Rabies is rare in humans-the risk of developing rabies following a bite by a proven rabid dog is estimated to be about 15 percent without post-exposure treatment (see below).

But it is common in other mammals. Most susceptible to it are foxes and coyotes; highly susceptible are skunks, ferrets, raccoons, bats; moderately susceptible are dogs, sheep, goats, horses.

Cats are much less susceptible than dogs, but more commonly involved in exposures because cats interact more with wildlife and have a poor history of rabies vaccination. As such, the frequency of human rabies exposure attributable to cats is increasing at a greater rate than those associated with dogs.

Because the rabies virus is present in an infected animal before they exhibit symptoms of rabies, suspect dogs and cats must be quarantined from anywhere between 10 days and six months depending on the circumstances. Did they bite a human or were they bitten by a wild animal? Are they immunized against rabies or not? Do they have an owner or are they a stray?

In the case of undomesticated animals, it is not known how long it takes before the symptoms appear. And for that reason, these animals must be destroyed and decapitated and their brains tested (the virus attacks the brain) in order to determine whether the person or animal they came into contact with needs treatment.

"There were 100 reported (rabies) cases in Maine in 1995 and an expected doubling in number this year."

THE ROLE OF THE ACO

As noted above, changes in Maine state statutes make it clear that "responding to reports of animals suspected of having rabies" is now a duty of the animal control officer (7 MRSA, section 3947).

But responding to a report is merely the tip of the iceberg. Changes in the statutes also make it clear that the animal control officer "shall ensure" that the procedures established by the State for the control of animals suspected of having rabies - be they domesticated or undomesticated - are carried out. (22 MRSA, section 1313).

As Dr. Chip Ridky, the State Veterinarian, with the Maine Department of Agriculture, explained it to the TOWNSMAN, Section 1313 basically means that it is the job of the animal control officer to "coordinate" the job of the rabies investigation, as spelled out in the regulations.

As such, "Towns should stop looking at the position of animal control officers as dogcatchers," says Dr. Ridky. "Animal control officers are much, much more than that; they are professionals who have been given a major responsibility of seeing to it that the rabies rules are enforced."

But what does overall responsibility mean? It is easier to say what it does not mean. For starters, reading the rules, it is clear that it is not the responsibility of the ACO to decapitate the animal for testing, or even to transport the head to the state for testing. Nor is it the ACO's job to recommend treatment for humans or other animals exposed to rabies, says Dr. Ridky.

So what are they responsible for?

Domesticated Animals

Under the new rules, ACOs are responsible for controlling stray domesticated animals - and yes that means cats - that are suspected of having rabies and transporting them to a veterinarian or, if necessary, if harm to humans and other animals is imminent, shooting them -- if they are "qualified" to do so.

And if testing is necessary, it is the ACO's job to arrange for the decapitation of head and its transport to the Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory in Augusta. Under no circumstances should the animal control officer decapitate the suspect animal, says Dr. Ridky. To do so would expose them and others to a risk of infection.

But, if the domesticated animal suspected of having rabies is not a stray - if it has an owner - under the new rules, it is the responsibility, not of the ACO but that of the owner for carrying out the proper procedures (capture, quarantine, testing, etc.).

But that is not to say that the animal control officer has no involvement. Suspecting his/her animal of having been exposed to rabies, the owner must involve the ACO by notifying them. The ACO must then see to it that the owner understands what they are to do (capture, quarantine, testing, etc.).

The rules allow the animal control officer to get more involved in the case of an owned domesticated animal, under certain circumstances. Section 3 of Rules Governing Rabies Management states, "The ACO may respond to a report of an owned domesticated animal suspected of having rabies when the municipality regards the animal as a threat to public health."

Rules aside, there is also a state statute pertaining to animal control in general that also mandates that "A municipality shall control domesticated animals that are a problem in a community." 7 MRSA, section 3948(3).

Section 3 of Rules Governing Rabies Management states, "The ACO may respond to a report of an owned domesticated animal suspected of having rabies when the municipality regards the animal as a threat to public health. "

Undomesticated Animals

Under the statutes, if the animal in question is an undomesticated animal, the ACO must respond, but not before contacting the game warden. As is stated in 22 MRSA, section 1313, "If the animal is an undomesticated animal a game warden shall assist the animal control officer." Which is to say, it is the animal control officer's and not the game warden's primary responsibility to respond to the report and see to it that the proper procedures are carried out.

Enforcement

As noted above, in cases of owned domesticated animals suspected of having rabies, it is the owner's responsibility to carry out the proper procedures.

But what if the owner refuses / fails to / is uncooperative?

As noted above, the municipality has the option of taking control of the situation (capturing the animal, placing it in quarantine etc.), if it regards the animal as a threat to public health.

Before doing so, a Court order or warrant should be obtained before proceeding under State law. (See 7 MRSA, section 1755 (1989) and 22 MRSA, sections 804 and 810).

But state law is not the only tool animal control officers have in doing their duty. For there is nothing keeping municipalities from enacting more stringent ordinance laws or regulations than the State's. Under

7 MRSA, section 3950, [repealed] municipalities can enact their own ordinance which may enable them to enforce the law in a more timely manner than that provided under the current law.

At least one town -- Wells -- is in the process of doing just that. (See below).

SOME PRACTICAL ISSUES

So, given the current crisis and the new rules and regulations for dealing with it, what is a municipality to do?

Protect the Dogs and Cats

Wage a war on getting all cats and dogs in your town vaccinated against rabies. Remember, vaccinated dogs and cats -- especially cats -- provide an excellent buffer between rabid wild animals and humans. Remember, Maine law 7 MRSA, sections 3916, 3922 requires dogs and cats to be vaccinated against rabies.

To do that, wage a campaign to get all dogs in town licensed. And offer low-cost rabies clinics for cats. And, last but not least, suggests Dr. Ridky, given the current rabies crisis, reconsider the licensing of cats - which are more susceptible to rabies than any other domesticated animal - as a way to ensure that cats are immunized against rabies.

Protect and Equip Your ACO

Although it is not a state requirement, make sure your animal control officer is given pre-exposure rabies vaccine. As the name implies, it is given before exposure to the disease. It is given for two reasons: to protect against an unknown exposure to the rabies virus and to reduce the amount of treatment needed after a known exposure to the virus.

It is given as a series of three injections over the period of a month. The vaccine itself is less than $150 and is much cheaper than the cost of the post-exposure shots, which average about $1,200. And that does not include the emergency room costs where people usually go to have it administered.

The Maine Department of Agriculture has published a brochure identifying 22 locations around the state where the pre-exposure immunizations are available. Although it is not required under state law, make sure you equip your animal control officer properly, because if you do not, you are exposing your animal control officer to rabies, points out Dr. Ridky who likens an unequipped animal control officer to an unequipped firefighter.

The Rabies Management Manual lists 12 basic pieces of equipment, including animal handling gloves, control poles and large cages, plus seven additional pieces for controlling, capturing and transporting suspected rabid animals.

When it comes to the cost of equipping and immunizing an animal control officer, towns may wish to consider sharing an ACO with a number of surrounding towns, as has been done in the case of code enforcement officers.

Understand Who Pays

When it comes to costs associated with transportation, quarantine, testing and euthanasia of suspected rabid animals, the law makes it quite clear that the cost associated is to be shared.

Under 22 MRSA, section 1313, the:

Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife shall pay for all costs associated with an undomesticated animal;

Owner of a domesticated shall pay all the costs associated with his or her animal; or

Municipality in which the animal was apprehended shall pay for all costs of a stray domesticated animal. And, yes, that means cats as well as dogs.

"Your ACO is much more than a dogcatcher,"Dr. Chip Ridky, Maine State Veterinarian

Develop a Response Plan

But immunizations and equipment and payment are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to controlling the spread of rabies.

As suggested by the Rabies Work Group in its "Rabies Management Manual", a "Local Response Plan", spearheaded by municipal officials should be developed using input from the animal control officer, the public health officer, the director of the local animal shelter, the local game warden, local veterinarians, and representatives from the local hospital, the school department, and the police department.

The plan should identify people and resources that can provide:

A public education program to inform citizens of what steps they can take to protect themselves;

A strong animal control program enforcing dog licensing to limit strays and ensuring compliance with vaccination laws for dogs and cats; and

A coordinated response team for dealing with rabies exposures.

In the case of the latter (rabies exposure), the Rabies Work Group suggests that the team have in place a network of people and facilities that deal with everything from who captures the suspect rabid animal to identifying facilities which can quarantine dogs and cats which have exposed humans to rabies or which themselves have been exposed to rabies to the euthanasia and testing of suspect animals.

SUMMARY: THE BOTTOM LINE

Question. What is a municipality's minimum legal responsibility under the new law?

Answer. Responding to reports of all animals - domesticated and undomesticated - that are suspected of having rabies and ensuring that the proper procedures are carried out to ensure the public health and safety of its citizens.

Question. What empowers a town to enforce these rules and regulations?

Answer. 22 MRSA, section 1313.

Question. What is the State's responsibility?

Answer. Develop the rules for dealing with animals suspected of having rabies. Provide training for animal control officers responding to reports of rabies. Cover the cost associated with undomesticated animals suspected of having rabies. Provide for the testing of animals suspected of having rabies.

Question. What happens if a municipality does not comply with the law?

Answer. As Dr. Ridky sees it, based on 22 MRSA, section 1313, a citizen could sue a town for negligence in protecting the public health.

SIDEBARS:

RESOURCES

Your animal control officer should have most of the following publications, especially the Rabies Management Manual and Animal laws: Rules and Relative Laws, 1996 Edition, as copies were sent to all municipalities.

Pre-exposure Rabies Immunization Location (flier)**

Ten-day Quarantine Locations (flier)**

Rabies Management Manual (booklet)

Rules Governing Rabies Management (brochure)**:

Rabies Public Health Fact Sheet (flier)**

Animal Laws: Rules and Relative Laws (booklet)**

** Maine Department of Agriculture, Animal Welfare Unit, 287-3846

To ensure that your animal control officer directly receives future publications, the town clerk should notify the Department of Agriculture at the time of the officer's appointment of the name, address and telephone number of the officer.

"QUALIFIED TO SHOOT"

By Joseph Wathen, MMA Staff Attorney

State regulations on rabies control adopted under Title 22 MRSA allow an ACO who is "qualified to shoot" to kill a suspected rabid animal if harm to humans or other animals is imminent. The law does not state what is necessary to be "qualified to shoot", and there are no State training or qualification programs for this.

The 16-hour ACO basic certification program does not qualify an ACO to carry or use a firearm. The 100-hour pre-service law enforcement training program offered by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy would likely satisfy the qualification requirement, although that program is designed for police officers rather than ACOs.

Until the law is clarified, it is up to the municipal officers in each community to determine whether an ACO is qualified to shoot, and whether the ACO is allowed to carry a firearm as part of his or her official duties. Before allowing this, we recommend the following:

First the municipal officers must decide as a matter of policy whether they want the ACO to have access to a firearm or not. For liability or public policy reasons the municipal officers may decide against it.

Second, contact the municipality's insurer to determine whether coverage is available (and the cost) for an ACO who carries a firearm.

Finally, provide or find some sort of local training for the ACO for use of firearms to dispatch animals. There is no State course available, but training by a police officer (as is done in the Town of Wells) or game warden is recommended. The ACO should also learn how to shoot and handle suspected rabid animals, as it is critical to avoid head shots which may further spread the disease. Information on this is available from the State Veterinarian's office, and may also be available from a game warden.

WELLS: ONE TOWN'S RESPONSE

In Wells, pop. 7,726, where there have been two verified cases of rabies in raccoons - one in August of 1995 and a second in February of 1996 - the town has developed a rabies management plan that includes a proposed change to its animal control ordinance, a rabies education program, and a set of standard operating procedures for dealing with animals suspected of having rabies.

Animal Control Ordinance

Wells' current animal control ordinance places the duties of the animal control officer under the direction of the police chief. For as Wells' Police Chief William Zackular, explains it, the job of Wells' Animal Control Officer, is one of law enforcement. As Chief Zackular points out, not only is the ACO empowered to write summons for civil violations, he is also empowered to carry and use a weapon.

On the fuzzy issue of animal control officers and guns, Chief Zackular admits that the phrase in the new rules governing rabies, which states that an . . ."Animal Control Officer qualified to shoot may shoot . . . a suspected rabid animal if harm to humans or other animals is imminent" . . . is not clear.

Under Maine statute, says Chief Zackular, a person "qualified" to carry a handgun would have to take a 100-hour pre-service course at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. But as Zackular sees it, that's not necessary. " A 45-caliber handgun is too much of a weapon to kill a small wild animal," says Chief Zackular.

As such, Wells' ACO is authorized to carry a 22-caliber rifle, which is more appropriate, says Chief Zackular. He has been trained in its use by the department's firearm instructor, who in turn is certified by the state.

When it comes to enforcement, ACO Savoy told the TOWNSMAN that Wells is taking advantage of 7 MRSA, section 3950 and is currently in the process of writing an amendment to the town's animal control ordinance to empower the town to seize and quarantine animals suspected of having rabies, without going through the maze of Maine governmental agencies, as is currently required.

Protocol for Dealing with Suspected Rabid Animals

Taking the "Rabies Management Manual" at its word that each municipality design its own set of procedures for dealing with reports of suspected rabid animals, Wells has also developed a one-page set of standard operating procedures.

When to call the game warden. When to call the local veterinarian. What to do when you can't capture the animal. When to serve the quarantine notice. When to call the local health officer. What paper work to fill out and where to put it. It's all contained in one page.

In developing the procedures, Wells has worked closely with the local health officer, the local warden, and the local veterinary hospital.

Wells has also developed its own set of advisory and reporting forms, using the state forms, which are in the Rabies Management Manual, as a model.

Public Education

Wells has not stopped with protocol. It has also begun to wage an intensive public education program, targeting the public schools with letters from the chief of police warning the community of the rabies situation in town, urging them to get their dogs licensed, describing the State's quarantine mandate, and noting that the town had implemented a rabies management program to deal with the situation.

In addition to writing its own warning letter, it has also reprinted the State's "Public Health Fact Sheet." But before doing so, it has customized it to include the town's name and logo on the cover, the number of reported cases to date in the town, and who to call in town, including the Wells Police Department, Animal Control Officer, State Game Warden, and the Maine Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory. The flier is distributed widely throughout town.

And last but not least, last month, the town held a public discussion and slide presentation on rabies at the Town Hall. The speaker was none other than the State Veterinarian, Dr. Chip Ridky.

Low Cost Rabies Clinic

In stepping up its attempt to ensure that dogs and cats are immunized against rabies - as of 1992, all cats over three months of age must be immunized against rabies - Wells recently held a low-cost rabies clinic for both dogs and cats at the Wells Fire Department. In doing so, it called upon the local veterinarian who provided the shots at cost ($8), instead of the standard $35.

As Chief Zackular advises: It is important to have a good working relationship with your local veterinarian if you are going to develop a good rabies management plan.