VERNON-Three Highland Lakes residents are undergoing a painful series of shots after being either bitten or scratched by a rabid domesticated cat. According to Gene Osias, the township's health director, the cat, belonging to a family he declined to identify, scratched a neighbor on Thursday, June 2. The woman reported the incident to the township's animal control officer, Thomas Maellaro, who impounded and quarantined the animal. Osias urged anyone else in Highland Lakes who was bitten or scratched by a cat last week to contact his office at 973-764-4055. By Saturday, the cat was extremely ill and barely able to stand. After euthanizing it, the carcass was sent to state health officials. On Monday afternoon, officials called Osias and told him the animal had tested positive for rabies. The health director said it was fortunate that the woman reported the scratch, because, on interviewing the owners of the cat, he learned that both the mother and her daughter had been bitten. "They were bitten on the same day the neighbor was scratched, but we weren't notified," Osias said. Rabies is nearly always fatal if treatment is not started soon after being infected. "Normally, we like to see vaccinations started within five days," Osias said. The township holds free rabies vaccination clinics for dogs and cats twice a year, in the spring and in the fall. "Last year, we vaccinated 523 dogs and 304 cats," he reported. Osias said that the first vaccination a pet gets protects it for a year. Subsequent vaccinations are good for three years each. The township has had one other case of a cat contracting rabies, but the other case was a feral cat. "This is the first time we've had it with an owned cat," he said. Pets can contract rabies if bitten by a wild animal infected with the disease. The disease is not a trivial menace in Sussex County. According to state statistics, more than 330 cases were reported between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2004, 11 in cats and 1 in a dog. "This is a potentially life-threatening disease," Osias said. "That's why it's so important to get pets vaccinated." Osias said people who are exposed to an animal that may have rabies are required to report the incident to local health or animal control officials. Exposure is considered a bite from the animal or the contamination of open wounds, abrasions, mucous membranes and possibly scratches with saliva or spinal fluid, Osias said. When the cat in this incident scratched the neighbor, it was not yet showing obvious signs of illness, he said. But within three days, it was near death. The initial diagnosis of the animal was given by Dr. Ramieri at the Vernon Veterinary Hospital, Osias said. The family that had owned the cat also had six other cats and four kittens in their home. After inspecting the animals and finding no sign of their having been bitten, the owners were ordered to quarantine all of the animals in their home for six months. "If during this confinement they begin to exhibit symptoms consistent with rabies, they will have to be euthanized and tested," Osias said. "If they had been previously vaccinated, only a 45-day quarantine would have been required, as the vaccine is very effective in preventing rabies." Osias and Maellaro urged residents not to feed stray cats. By local ordinance, anyone feeding or sheltering a stray cat becomes the owner of that cat and is responsible for seeing that it is immunized against rabies. "If you own cats, whether they go outdoors or not, get them vaccinated," Osias said. Rabies is a viral disease which is spread through the saliva of an infected animal. Raccoons, skunks, bats, foxes, one stray cat and groundhogs are the animals which have been found to have rabies in Vernon prior to this incident., Osias said. "No wild animals should ever be handled, including babies," Osias went on. "They may have rabies and not show any symptoms. If an exposure, bite or saliva contamination of an open wound from a wild animal occurs, either the animal has to be killed and tested or, if the animal can not be identified, the person exposed has to undergo post exposure rabies treatment." Residents who are forced to handle wild animals, as may happen if a dog gets in a fight with a wild animal, should use heavy leather gloves and a shovel or other tool if necessary, Osias said.