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Rabies shots follow kitten's visit

Everyone around Hunt Road was so beguiled by an abandoned orange-striped kitten that, until it died, no one suspected it carried a potentially deadly disease.

That's why residents all along the pockmarked stretch of packed sand that turns into Morgan Road found bright yellow fliers on their doors this week, urging them to come to the county health department for rabies shots.

Why all the frenzy?

"The problem with rabies is, if you develop the symptoms, you die," said Rex Joyner, an infectious disease specialist with the Pasco County Public Health Unit. "There's nothing we can do. So you take shots to prevent the disease."

Wesley and Betty Fleer, who adopted the kitten last month, aren't waiting around. They went Thursday to get the first in a series of seven shots that combat the disease.

About 18 other people who played with, were bitten by or were scratched by the unnamed foundling _ including the staff of a local animal hospital _ have been notified that they should take the vaccine.

"Everyone's started the series," Joyner said. The course consists of a shot that grants initial protection and the rest of the shots over 28 days that let the body build lasting resistance to the virus.

The rabies virus is transmitted through saliva and infects the brain, causing changes in behavior. It can infect all mammals and is almost always fatal if left untreated.

The Fleers found the kitten in November, when they heard it mewing in the weeds across from their home.

"It was across the street just a-crying," Wesley Fleer remembered. "Somebody probably just threw it over there."

It was a familiar sound, Fleer's wife said, since their secluded neighborhood is a popular dumping spot for unwanted pets. The Fleers never gave a second thought to rescuing abandoned animals before. At one point, their homestead played host to nearly 20 mallard ducks, a wild turkey and the family's cat. The couple also found a chow that way once, which became their family dog.

"It was just such a pretty little kitten," said Betty Fleer. "We never would have thought it had rabies."

Wesley Fleer tried unsuccessfully to lure the kitten from the bushes, but the next day, when he fed the family pets, the orange tabby ambled across the road and stayed.

A few weeks later they noticed changes in its behavior: a dragging leg, a tendency to scratch.

"My son said, "Mom, look, he acts like he's having a fit,' " Betty Fleer recalled. "He was kind of flipping and he kept wanting to attack (her son)."

Four days before Christmas, it scratched the Fleers' son. Unbeknownst to them, the kitten had also wandered into a neighbor's barbecue outing and scratched a pregnant woman, the Fleers said.

Thinking the kitten's hip was broken, they called animal control. An official took the cat to a local hospital, where it stayed until it died on Christmas Day.

When veterinarians performed an autopsy Dec. 29, they determined the cat had been rabid.

That's when the notification effort kicked into high gear. Anyone who thinks they might need shots should contact the Pasco Health Department at (813) 869-3900, or their local health department. By the time symptoms develop, the disease has progressed too far to cure, officials said.

"And it's a very horrible death," Joyner cautioned. "When a horse gets it, we shoot the horse, but a human, they suffer for two weeks. Until they go into a coma, it's just awful."

He offered people one last bit of advice.

"Do not play with animals that come out of the woods or with coons," he said. "Almost all coons have rabies."

Betty Fleer said her family, who rang in the new year with sore arms and hips, has definitely learned a lesson:

"We won't be taking in any more strays."