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The Fort Meade veterinarian treatment facility (VTF) has been operating at a high operational tempo since early September managing, vaccinating, quarantining and, in some cases, euthanizing animals on post in light of one confirmed case of rabies.

"Each of the VTF technicians chose this profession for one reason - because they truly care about the well being of all animals. It is this reason that makes their current mission one of the hardest they have ever had to endure in their military careers. Euthanizing animals is not easy and is sometimes hard to follow through," said Capt. Elizabeth Hoffman, the officer in charge of the Fort Meade VTF.

The issue began in early September when multiple animal biting incidents were reported to the VTF. The source of these bites turned out to be one cat, which was tested and diagnosed with rabies.

Once the case was confirmed as rabies, several procedures were set into motion to ensure the public's safety. Hoffman discussed the issue with the post game warden, environmental office and local county authorities.

Roger Francis, the Fort Meade game warden, coordinated trapping of animals, updated wild animal record-keeping methods, and ensured oral rabies vaccines for raccoons were dropped by helicopter on post for the third year in a row.

"The game warden has been terrific in providing assistance and is really doing a bulk of the hard work himself, trapping all the stray animals," Hoffman said.

Local county authorities also discussed their one diagnosed rabies case with the post to ensure similar methods of management were being employed.

Dr. James Horman, the Anne Arundel County veterinarian who manages the county's rabies program, discussed details of the county's case that occurred off post on Aug. 21 with the VTF.

The large scale coordination is a major reason for the success of the managing this incident, said Hoffman. Still, the strict rules for handling unknown animals has been taxing.

"All strays are handled as if they have potentially been exposed to rabies," said Hoffman. "Adoption of animals with unknown exposure history would be irresponsible in light of the public health risk of rabies since once infected with rabies, it is a fatal disease if the victim does not receive any treatment."

To protect the public, the post initiated a new pet policy that will stay in effect for six months after a positive rabies test. The policy limits the time a stray animal, without any identification like a microchip or tag, will be held in captivity. Unclaimed animals and strays will be euthanized if they are not claimed within three to seven business days.

"We scheduled a rabies/microchip walk-in clinic in September to allow residents an extra opportunity to ensure compliance with post regulations regarding registration and vaccination," she said. "This helped avoid issues of people losing their pets and us not being able to identify them. Once identified, pets can be returned if valid rabies vaccination documentation has been confirmed.

"Throughout this time period, my Soldiers have continued to accomplish their normal tasks while taking on the additional responsibilities of handling the rabies situation. The changes to policy have required them to assist in euthanizing animals that we previously would have made available for adoption," Hoffman said.

"This has been very hard on the VTF staff. One of the things that people don't know or understand is that there is no way to test for rabies in a live animal. Not only do the animals have to be euthanized, but the only way to test for rabies is to submit parts of the animal to the testing laboratory. This is the hardest procedure for any veterinarian as we are the truest of animal lovers," she said.

"My soldiers and I have chosen this profession because we love animals; our mission is to protect their health and ensure their welfare. Euthanasia is always difficult; under these circumstances, it can be extremely upsetting.

"As difficult as it is, we will continue to be vigilant in enforcing the policy. There are currently 14 privately-owned pets under home quarantine. The best part of our day is when we can tell pet owners who call us and ask if we have found their pet, that we have indeed found their pet. It is wonderful to return the pets to their owners. The owners that claim their animals have all been very happy to have their pets safely returned to them and that is what we are all about.

"It is important for people to understand that the last thing we want to do is euthanize their pets. We will make every effort to find and contact owners when animals are brought to the VTF," said Hoffman.

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