What happens when your kitten is tentatively diagnosed with a rare, untreatable disease and must finally be euthanized — as an emergency procedure — in the throes of uncontrollable seizures? It’s a harrowing experience, for sure, but it becomes a legitimate nightmare once the vet tells you the kitten's body is not yours to keep. Her head — just her head, mind you — will have to be tested for rabies.

Your question: Is that possible?

The short answer: Absolutely.

Here’s the email question that occasioned this post:

We just put down a barely year-old domestic shorthair kitten with what [a veterinary neurologist] suspected was a rare case of hippocampal necrosis. MRI and spinal tap did not confirm [this diagnosis].

Unfortunately, during whatever the emergency vet techs were doing to get our kitten catheterized for euthanasia, he bit a tech. So by law his remains were tested for rabies.

This was already a super sad situation and this event made it truly horrific for me and my husband. Mallo was young (would have been one year in early May), not an outside cat, and had his kitten series shots and rabies shot. They would not waive this and of course the test came back negative.

The vet did admit to [feeling bad about it] and even refunded us some money. But as far as I was concerned, he was seizing again as we brought him in, and even if not, it was on them to watch themselves. I even asked why the catheter; I have witnessed other pets put down with just the needles in the back leg vein. They wanted to be sure they had the clearest open veins — I forget how they put it.

Perhaps you can comment or shed some light … many thanks.

And here’s my answer:

I assume the predominant issue you seek my opinion on has to do with the gruesome kind of rabies testing we sometimes have to undertake. I'm very sorry for everything, though. So sad to lose so young a pet.

Problem is, we don’t understand what causes this very rare condition (hippocampal necrosis). And the only way to confirm the diagnosis is to perform a post mortem study of the affected brain tissues. Which means they’d have had to test his head anyway.

Not that this is likely to make you feel any better. At least then it would have been your choice to have his head tested or not. And it would not have needed to be separated from his body for the purposes of this test. Which makes all the difference to some people.

But I can't say I'd have recommended any different had Mallo been my patient. The public health powers that be require that any cat with neurological signs (like seizures), vaccinated or not, be tested for rabies or quarantined should he bite someone.

In fact, if an unvaccinated cat displaying nervous system-related symptoms bit someone, it would be the right of the bitten person to demand euthanasia for testing in lieu of receiving rabies vaccines (public health officials always require post-exposure rabies vaccination in cases where the these biters’ remains cannot be tested).

The fact that Mallo was vaccinated once already would have given me cause to seek direction from my local Public Health Department concerning the owners’ legal rights to their property’s disposal (how the legal system views our pets, for better or worse) rather than take that decision upon myself. After all, I wouldn’t want to put myself in the legal firing line if I could avoid it. And they’re the experts on this anyhow.

However, even multiple rabies vaccinations in Mallo’s past (no cases of rabies have ever been reported in cats that were vaccinated twice) would not have been enough to stave off a legal injunction for testing from the bitten technician, were he/she to pursue one. And it makes sense that he/she might given the fact that rabies is almost uniformly fatal.

As to the euthanasia method and the IV catheter: In many hospitals it’s standard operating procedure to install a catheter prior to euthanasia. This is for your pet’s comfort during the procedure. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than having to try to find tiny, collapsed veins when the euthanasia solution is in your hands. Having said that, I don’t always employ one. Our hospital is small enough that we have no standard protocols for euthanasia — which has it’s pros and cons, I assure you.

Does all this make sense? Again, I'm so sorry it had to happen to you and your family. I do hope you were able to retrieve all of Mallo’s remains in consideration of the kind of burial or cremation you desired.

Dr. Patty Khuly

It’s got to be a serious blow. You do everything possible to save your pet. Thousands of dollars and lots of heartache later, one teensy slip (which can happen to any cat and any technician), and the upshot is an unnecessarily brutal (and indelible) image of your loved one’s body.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even if the brain needs to be tested, there’s no need for public health departments to require decapitation. It makes sense if we’re talking about a fox, a raccoon, or a feral cat whose shipping costs the state may not want to assume.

But when it comes to our pets, let’s be honest: there’s no place for scrimping here. Even if a veterinary hospital does not want to assume the greater cost, it could always pass it along to the client in a respectful way.

Problem is, public health departments don’t want to deal with entire bodies. And they make the rules. While those regs should change to reflect respect for our pets, as when an owner specifically requests an exemption, I wouldn’t hold my breath. For now, paying for shipping and begging favors from public health workers is your best bet. But there are no guarantees of success here. 

The final point: You know, there’s no reason why the head can’t be retrieved. Sure, it’s one extra step for the public health peeps but there’s no cause for the wanton disregard of people’s feelings. In this case, I guess no one thought to ask for it back — the owners included. Which is kind of sad. The hospital should have tried. But then, potential rabies patients come to us so infrequently, and the emotional conditions surrounding them are so sensitive, that it’s no surprise the trauma of it all — for everyone involved — obscured a little rational thought.

OK, so that’s all I’ve got on this subject. Your thoughts?

Dr. Patty Khuly

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