Rabid dogs, foaming at the mouth and baring their teeth, figure prominently in the popular imagination. But a more immediate rabies threat may be as close as the nearest warm windowsill.
As 45 countries celebrated the first World Rabies Day Saturday to draw attention to the world's leading rabies culprit — dogs — the United States faces a larger problem from domestic cat breeds.
"Cats are certainly even more of a risk or a threat to be aware of, even if they don't get as much attention," said Kim Mitchell, an epidemiologist with the Maryland Center for Veterinary Public Health.
In the eastern United States, raccoons are still king when it comes to rabies cases. After that, cats compete with skunks and bats for the title of top rabies carrier, and are the leading carriers by far among domestic animals.
Nationwide, however, cats accounted for 54 percent of domestic animals found with rabies in 2005, compared with dogs at 16 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More cows were discovered with rabies than dogs that year.
The number of reported rabies cases in any species typically fluctuates from year to year because of natural cycles in movement and reproduction, said Jesse Blanton, a rabies expert with the CDC.
While Maryland does not have a special program focusing on rabid cats, Mitchell said veterinary officials encourage cat owners to keep their pets indoors as much as possible, in part because cats come into contact with a lot of wildlife when left outdoors.
"There's still kind of a steady increase in the incidents of rabies in cats," Mitchell said. "It's something that a lot of state and local health agencies continue to monitor."
Of the 380 rabies cases reported in 2005 in Maryland, 242 were raccoons. Of the 30 rabid domestic animals that year, 28 were cats, one was a dog and one was a cow. In 2006, 272 of the 414 rabid animals in the state were raccoons. Domestic cases include 15 cats, two cows and two horses.
Maryland rabies statistics do not distinguish housecats from strays. But part of the problem lies with feral cats — domestic breeds that roam wild and have no owner.
Anne Arundel County Animal Control finds one or two rabid cats every year, said Mark Smith, a field supervisor.
"Most of the time it's not anybody's own cat. It's feral," he said.
All states say owners must vaccinate their dogs and cats and often ferrets when the pets are several months old. While feral cats tend to live around people, often they do not have the proper shots.
"There are a lot of feral cats that people will often feed, but not take responsibility for vaccinating," Mitchell said.
Elaine Strong does not worry about rabies when she takes care of stray cats that come by her home in Huntingtown, Md.
"I figure if they come up to me and they're friendly, they're probably safe," she said.
Strong, who also volunteers at a local sanctuary for stray and feral cats that have been caught and spayed, said she tries to take her strays to low-cost vets for rabies shots and other care. She has turned three of them into pets over the years.
Rabies is a viral disease that travels through bodily fluids such as saliva and attacks the nervous system. It is fatal if untreated.
The last confirmed case of human rabies in Maryland was in 1976, Mitchell said.
Animals that are normally aggressive become listless when they are suffering from rabies, Smith said. All of the cats his agency has handled were already very sick by the time they were brought in for testing.
Ordinarily docile animals can become aggressive in the early stages, before the virus incapacitates them, Smith said.
Last month's rabid black bear — Maryland's first and only the seventh in the country since 1960, according to the CDC — was trying to rip the air conditioning unit out of the window of a Grantsville home before the homeowner shot it.
"The biggest take-home message is it's a really uncommon thing for a bear to be diagnosed with rabies," said Harry Spiker of the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Service.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.