County Rabies Advisory Report Calls For Enhanced Measures

SNOW HILL – More rabies vaccination clinics, managed feral cat colonies and vaccination of wild animals were among the steps recommended by the Rabies Advisory Committee formed this spring to work on the ongoing Worcester County rabies epidemic.

Worcester County Health Officer Debbie Goeller presented the advisory committee’s report to the Worcester County Commissioners this week.

The county Health Department and Animal Control have already begun implementing measures to reduce rabies positive animals in Worcester County through an increased public awareness campaign.

“For the first time, we’ve utilized reverse 911 to notify residents of an area where a rabid animal was found … it worked very well for us,” said Goeller.

The reverse 911 system was used to alert the area after a rabid cat was found in West Ocean City in July.

Instead of four rabies clinics, the Health Department will add two, for a total of six. Worcester County residents can get their pets vaccinated for $5 per animal at the clinics. Out-of-county pet owners will pay $10 per pet.

The next two clinics will be held on Sept. 21 in Ocean Pines and Oct. 6 in Stockton. Although the dates have not been finalized, clinics will be held in Showell in October and in Pocomoke in early November.

County Commissioner Louise Gulyas asked whether the Health Department would include a rabies shot clinic in Ocean City or West Ocean City.

“It’s something you really should consider,” Gulyas said.

Currently, the Health Department has no plans to hold rabies clinics in Ocean City or West Ocean City, but Goeller said she would check into who has the authority to hold a clinic in the resort.

If that does not work out, a clinic should be held in West Ocean City, Gulyas said.

Other communities in the county will be asked to sponsor clinics, Goeller said, by providing a location, advertising and volunteers.

“That would help us, truly,” she said.

Plans also call for a monthly, two-hour rabies clinic at animal control. The Health Department will foot the bill for that service.

The advisory committee is asking the county to update the animal control ordinance, particularly the definition of owner or custodian of an animal. The apparently simple concept of pet ownership becomes complicated in the case of regularly fed strays or feral cat colonies.

The ordinance should also be amended to require the secure confinement of animals in heat, which attract males across miles, the committee concluded. Male animals will fight over a female in heat and are also more likely to come into contact with rabid animals when in search of a mate.

The long-term, continuous chaining of dogs should also be prohibited or limited, the advisory committee felt, since the tethered canines are more vulnerable to rabid animals because they cannot get away from other creatures.

Feral cat colonies could be managed for better public health, Goeller said. The advisory committee suggested an ordinance establishing standards for managing colonies, requiring neutering and spaying, vaccination, and monitoring and conferring liability and ownership on the managing organization. 

“Additionally, there are many individuals who consistently feed stray and feral cats. No standards are followed in those circumstances,” Goeller said.

That, she said, is why the definition of a pet owner is crucial.

Database software could be used to keep better track of which animals have been vaccinated, the advisory committee suggested. Goeller said that the Health Department already uses software to track human immunizations.

Another topic the advisory committee address was oral baiting, a costly, decade long program to vaccinate wild animals. It received little initial support from elected officials at this week’s meeting.

Anne Arundel County has had great success with its oral baiting program, Goeller said. Oral baiting in Worcester County would be expensive, at a rough estimate of $350,000 a year.

The labor-intensive oral vaccination program would need to be continued for 10 years for best effectiveness, said Goeller.

“I’m sure it’s not an attractive option now because of cost,” Goeller said.

Commissioner Judy Boggs said Goeller’s prediction was accurate.

“I think at this point in time it would involve too much funding and probably additional staffing,” said Boggs.

The commissioners needed some time to think about the recommendations and consult with staff before deciding on any of the suggested courses of action.

The commissioners agreed to table the rabies report for 30 days.

“We need some guidance here,” Commission President Bud Church said.