12/01/2012 13:58 EST | Updated 01/31/2013 05:12 EST

Feline rabies case confirmed in New Brunswick

The New Brunswick public health department has confirmed its first case of feline rabies in more than a decade.

According to reports, the unvaccinated cat went outdoors, appeared sick when it returned, bit its owner and died the next day.

The incident took place last week, and involved an unvaccinated domestic cat in Balmoral, in the northern part of the province.

Regional Medical Officer of Health for Northern New Brunswick Dr. Maryanne Paquet said cases like these are unusual and extremely rare.

"In the last 10 years, there were no cats tested positive for rabies," she said.

Paquet said rabies is more common in bats, but still so uncommon that only four bats have tested positive for the disease in more than a decade.

The president of the New Brunswick Veterinary Medical Association, Dr. Mary-Ellen Themens, said even though this is the first case they've seen in a long time, it should not be a cause for panic.

"I want to really stress, this is not an epidemic, this is not a catastrophe, it can occur. But it does sensitize us to the potential that we can't be complacent," said Themans.

Since 2001, rabies cases in New Brunswick have been reported in raccoons, bats, skunks, a bat and a horse.

She said this recent occurrence should serve as a reminder that rabies still exists in this province and that precautionary measures of the past need to remain consistent today.

"We can't just say that, 'Oh no, hasn't occurred in years, decades, so it can't occur,' well, yes it can. This is where bite prevention is important. We have to maintain vaccination of our domestic animals."

Themens said pending cuts to the Canada Food Inspection Agency, the entity that tracks the prevalence of the disease nationwide, are threatening the understanding and tracking of rabies in the province.

The virus can be lethal for animals and humans, if not treated right away.

Most people who show symptoms of rabies don't survive. Those who do usually suffer severe neurological damage.

Humans can be vaccinated against rabies before exposure to the virus. They are also vaccinated after contact, although immunization is recommended as soon as possible after exposure.