Cat head lost in the mail creates serious problems for Rosebud woman

By: 
Linda Trest
Staff Writer

ROSEBUD — Lost mail is always an inconvenience. When the head of a possibly rabid cat is in the lost package, it creates a much more serious problem. 

Kathy Brautigam’s adventure began as she was doing a good deed. On her way to her car to leave for work, Wednesday, Sept. 26, she spotted a cat that sometimes comes around her rural home. She got some cat food and spread it on the ground for her usually shy friend. The cat normally eats the food while keeping a distance from Kathy. This time, the cat ignored the food and began rubbing against Kathy’s legs. 

Kathy then got some food in a bowl for the skinny, scruffy stray feline thinking it might prefer that feeding method. 

As she set the bowl down, the cat immediately latched onto her hand, leaving a bleeding bite wound. 

Needing to leave for work, Kathy had time for only a quick cleaning of the wound. As she was working, she realized that she may have been exposed to rabies. When she got home, she caught the cat in a trap using a bone from a pot roast as bait. 

The next day, Kathy made a trip to her doctor for the bite and received a tetanus shot. She then took the cat to Tri-County Veterinarian Services PC. Dr. Troy Hudnell   euthanized the cat, and removed its head. He then placed the head in a special container provided by the Missouri State Department of Health and Human Services. The head was surrounded by ice packs and the package was sent priority mail to ensure the brain sample the state health department would need to take would be viable. 

Kathy was told she could take the package to Jefferson City herself, or could send it via the United States Postal System by priority mail for $40. She chose to mail it, since she had a class reunion she wanted to attend, and didn’t have time for the drive. 

Dr. Hudnell says that people, “Absolutely cannot tell if an animal has rabies without testing the animal’s brain tissue.” In some cases, the offending animal can be quarantined for 10 days to see if rabies symptoms develop, but if the animal has bitten a human or pet, rabies vaccinations need to be started before then. He says there is a window of merely days in getting a viable sample to the lab.

The package, clearly marked “bio-hazard,” was taken to the Owensville Post Office at 3:57 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27, according to their records. A second shipping notation on the USPS tracking site says that at “4:26 p.m. truck left with package.” And that was the last time the package’s whereabouts were known for a week.

Normally, a package would leave the Owensville post office, go to the Columbia distribution center and then be sent on to Jefferson City. 

No one could tell Kathy where or when or if the package might turn up. Her doctor advised her to begin the rabies vaccines immediately. 

The rabies shots can only be administered at a hospital. So Kathy drove to the ER at Washington Mercy for the first of four shots she would need. 

Kathy reports that on the first visit rabies immune globulin was administered. She describes it as up to 50 injections using five vials of the globulin were administered around the site of the bite. The needle itself didn’t cause much pain, but the liquid entering her skin was excruciatingly painful. The actual rabies shot she received in her arm was mild by comparison. 

To add insult to injury, Kathy had to pay the high ER visit co-pay that day and would have to pay again for each of the scheduled four visits. 

Because the rabies shot affects people’s nervous systems in different ways, Kathy was told she could not work for two weeks. Since she could not use her right hand for the first several days, Kathy would not have been able to work anyway.

Kathy contacted The Republican on Wednesday, Oct. 3, to ask for help in finding the lost package. A call was immediately made to the Owensville post office. The employee who answered said they were not authorized to speak to the press.

After more than an hour of searching, the name of Kim Harvey, a USPS media contact was found. Harvey did not answer the phone, so a voice message was left.

The following day, Harvey returned the call. By then, she was able to report that the package had been located in the St. Louis postal system. She was unable to explain how the package had ended up there, or answer any other questions about the incident. 

When asked how USPS handled bio-hazard mail, she said that information was for internal use only. There was nothing she could disclose to the press or the public.

Notification was sent Thursday morning (the day after Harvey was first contacted by The Republican) that the package had been located and was in the St. Louis network distribution center. 

On Friday, Oct. 5, it was reported the package left the St. Louis facility at 5:13 a.m. and had been picked up at the Jefferson City facility at 6:18 a.m., eight days after it had been mailed. 

Kathy soon received word that the cat had tested negative for rabies. She could discontinue the rabies shots, but was still out the two ER copays and time off work.

Gasconade County Health Department Administrator provided facts on rabies in the state. The information noted that, “Approximately 45 rabid wild and domestic animals are detected annually in Missouri.”

Testing is only done where a public health or medical decision needs to be made, so this figure is probably an underestimate. Between 2006-15, 71 percent of detected rabid animals were bats while 26 percent were skunks. 

Two Missouri residents have died of rabies since 2005. Both deaths were associated with contact with bats. Rabies is always a fatal disease if not treated in time.

(For tips on avoiding exposure to rabies and how to detect symptoms of the disease, see our online report at www.GasconadeCountyRepublican.com).