Westborough – Town Assessor Linda Swadel recently had a very close call with rabies because of her fondness for a neighborhood cat that turned out to have the disease. Thanks to a couple of lucky events, she received the vaccine in time and will not develop rabies, which is always fatal once symptoms appear.
The moral of the story, she said, is that it's "just plain irresponsible" for pet owners not to have their pets vaccinated.
"You're exposing a whole lot more people than you think [when pets aren't vaccinated]," she said. "You exposed me."
Although neighbors owned Molly, the cat in question, Molly spent a great deal of time on the Swadels' deck. Both Linda and her husband, Dick, loved the cat and held her often, and sometimes Molly would lick them.
First lucky event
The first lucky event occurred when Dick worked from their Berlin home instead of traveling to work. He heard a commotion on his deck, found a raccoon attacking Molly, kicked the raccoon off Molly and called 911. The responding police officer shot the raccoon and sent it to Boston for tests.
The next day, Linda received word from the Department of Public Health (DPH) that the raccoon was rabid. Then, the Berlin animal control officer told her that Molly's last rabies shot was in 2003. Molly's owners had the choice of quarantining her for six months or putting her down for testing, and they decided to put her down.
Linda thought the story was over, but then she got another call from Berlin's animal control officer, who said Molly had tested positive for rabies. Although Molly had been bitten by the raccoon, rabies from that bite wouldn't have shown up so quickly, the officer said, and so Molly must have already had rabies, and had the ability to pass the rabies virus on through her saliva, for a while. She advised Linda to call her doctor immediately.
Linda told the doctor that while she hadn't been bitten by Molly, she had been exposed to Molly's saliva. The doctor said Linda should get a blood test, which she did.
Second lucky event
That's when the second lucky event happened. Linda had told Westborough's Animal Control Officer, John Keefe, about the raccoon attack on her deck. She happened to see Keefe a few days later, and told him Molly had had rabies and she'd had a blood test.
"There's no blood test for rabies," Keefe said.
He told her she should get the rabies vaccine immediately.
Linda called the DPH, which confirmed that there is no blood test for rabies. She was told that if she couldn't be 100 percent sure that she hadn't been licked by the cat and then touched her eye, nose or mouth, then she should get the shots immediately.
Linda and Dick went to the emergency room to begin the series of five shots, which are only "about as painful as a flu shot," she said, and have caused no side eff ects.
Since then Linda has thought a lot about how fortunate she was. If her husband hadn't worked from home that day, she wouldn't have found out that Molly had rabies. And if she hadn't run into Keefe, she would have assumed that a blood test would somehow protect her.
But while she's grateful that things worked out the way they did, she's also very angry.
"It breaks my heart that Molly had to be put down," she said. "It goes straight to her owners not keeping up with her shots. Rabies is lifethreatening for the animal and anyone the animal comes into contact with."
The bottom line, she said, is "Get your animals vaccinated."