The 17 cats and dogs seized from an Amado home June 8 amid a rabies outbreak are doing well, but questions have risen over county procedures and its response to the incident.
Patti Hogan, owner and founder of Paws Patrol, said she only became aware of the rabies outbreak after reading the Green Valley News. Paws Patrol is a non-profit that traps, spays/neuters and releases stray cats. They do much of their work in the Elephant Head area, where the rabies cases were reported.
As a result of the outbreak, Hogan said they've stopped trapping near Elephant Head for the foreseeable future.
She said she was "concerned" and "surprised" at the lack of notice from the Pima County Health Department or the Pima Animal Care Center. She called PACC to complain and was told her comments would be forwarded to director Kristen Hassen-Auerbach, she said.
Days before she read the news story, she took in five kittens. She now plans to keep them quarantined and has pushed back their eligible adoption date until she knows they are healthy.
"I understand them not wanting to panic everyone, but I think all of the animal rescue groups and vets should have been informed," Hogan said Tuesday.
Jean Davis, president of The Animal League of Green Valley, said she learned of the outbreak through the newspaper, too. She said she wasn't going to "second guess" PACC, but an outbreak so close to Green Valley has prompted her to think about changing TALGV's policies and procedures, at least for now.
"If somebody brings us a stray I guess we probably should quarantine it and talk to PACC about procedures," she said.
On June 11, PACC sent out a news release announcing 15 cats and two dogs were in quarantine after they were exposed to rabies.
An Amado resident called PACC June 4 to report several of her kittens had recently died. She said her two dogs had been in a fight with a skunk two weeks earlier and asked whether the deaths of the cats could be related, Hassen-Auerbach said. The skunk was killed. The woman had just been bitten by another kitten and was concerned about possible rabies exposure.
PACC took custody of three dead kittens and one sick kitten and provided the woman with outdoor cat enclosures so she could keep her remaining and unvaccinated 15 cats quarantined, Hassen-Auerbach said. The county also asked her to keep her dogs — which had expired rabies vaccines — isolated.
On June 7, PACC learned two of the kittens tested positive for rabies and PACC seized the rest of the woman's animals June 8.
The skunk, which had been buried, couldn't be tested because it had been dug up and devoured, she said. It's unknown if it was eaten by the dogs or wildlife.
An investigation revealed the woman, five relatives and a neighbor had direct contact with the kittens and they have begun receiving a series of five rabies shots. PACC plans to keep the dogs in quarantine for 45 days and the cats for 120 days.
On Friday, Pima County Assistant County Administrator Dr. Francisco Garcia said rabies is common in the southern part of the county. There were 77 cases in Pima County in 2017, and the county did not issue public notices in all of the cases, he said.
Rabies in the wild is a fact of life, so the county has always urged people to be cautious when they come into contact with wildlife, he said.
"The only time we produce a public notice or public release is when it is an exposure and we don’t know who was exposed to it. In this case, we know what the animal was, we knew who had been exposed and we had all of the animals," Garcia said. "It was clear to us there was not a broader group of folks who would have likely have come into contact with them."
Hassen-Auerbach declined an interview request, saying she preferred her team answer questions. She also requested the questions be submitted via email. Her team answered several questions via email Tuesday through spokeswoman Nikki Reck.
In that email, Reck contradicted Garcia. She wrote that animal protection officers posted official rabies notifications in English and Spanish on June 8 in a two-mile radius of the 700 block of West Hawk Way, where the rabies incident was reported. She also said officers went door-to-door to homes and businesses.
Eight homeowners and one business owner listed as living within the two-mile radius told the Green Valley News on Tuesday that they had received no notifications. Nobody in the area contacted Tuesday by the paper had received a notification. One said notices are routinely posted on a community bulletin board at West Quail Way and South Canoa Road where people get their mail. No rabies notices have appeared there, he said.
"We followed protocol on postings (high-traffic areas and knocked on doors nearby)," Reck wrote. "Not everyone was home and not every single home in the two miles was contacted due to the sheer volume with rabies already being present in recent history."
A person associated with PACC, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said PACC violated its own policies, state regulations and the advice of the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians when it came to quarantining the animals. The source said that normally PACC doesn't allow unvaccinated animals to be home quarantined and yet the cats and dogs were allowed to remain home until the rabies tests came back positive.
In addition, the source said that according to the Arizona Department of Health Services' Arizona Administrative Code R9-6-502, animals not currently vaccinated should be euthanized or quarantined for 180 days, not 120 days.
The National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians wrote a compendium for animal rabies prevention and control in 2016. In it, they note dogs, cats and ferrets that have never been vaccinated should be euthanized immediately because there are no USDA-licensed drugs that can be administered after an animal has been exposed to rabies. The compendium further states that if the pet owner refuses to have the animals euthanized, the rabies vaccine should not be administered more than 96 hours after exposure and if it's delayed, the animals should be quarantined for 180 days.
The source said that although the animals in this case had been exposed to rabies about two weeks before they were seized, they all received rabies vaccinations or booster shots the day they were taken to the shelter.
Reck said PACC did follow its policies and procedures regarding home quarantines.
"We could not assume that the cats were rabid. PACC’s procedures are to home quarantine the animal pending rabies results," she wrote. "When we were notified of the positive animal and confirmed no previous rabies vaccines, we then made the decision to impound all animals."
While an ADHS spokeswoman disputed it, Reck wrote that the Arizona Administrative Code has been updated to state the quarantine period is now 120 days. She also said the 2019 Manual for Rabies Control and Animal Bite Management, which is also created by the ADHS, states the quarantine period for unvaccinated animals is 120 days.
As for the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, Reck pointed out a sentence saying it allows PACC to consider each case independently.
The sentence she cited states: "If vaccination is delayed, public health officials may consider increasing the quarantine period for dogs and cats from 4 to 6 months, taking into consideration factors such as the severity of exposure, the length of delay in vaccination, current health status, and local rabies epidemiology.”
PACC didn't euthanize the cats, didn't immediately quarantine the cats and they didn't extend the quarantine period once they did quarantine them.
Reck wrote: "We don’t know if the remaining cats were exposed to the (presumed) rabid skunk; the owner didn’t see the skunk interact with the remaining cats and the skunk was too decayed for testing. The remaining 15 cats were more likely exposed to rabid housemate kittens."
She also contradicts when the rabies exposure happened. The source said the animals were exposed within a two-week time frame. Reck said the animals were exposed within a 72-hour time frame and received vaccinations within that time frame.
As for the dogs, Reck wrote that studies have shown out-of-date rabies vaccines have "powerful immunologic 'memory.'"
"That the dogs weren’t 'boostered' quickly was concerning to us, and we chose to hold the dogs at PACC for the 45-day quarantine rather than allowing them to be quarantined at their owner’s property," she wrote.
When asked why the cats weren't euthanized, Reck wrote "we are monitoring them for rabies while in quarantine, but are giving them a chance at life if possible. We are not required to put the animals to sleep. We have space, training and enrichment to spare these animals."