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A California man was bitten by a rabid stray kitten last month and this week the St. Mary’s County Health Department cautioned the public to avoid contact with unfamiliar animals.

Health officials believe four other kittens and their mother may have rabies in or around the Mazel subdivision, behind Walmart in California.

St. Mary’s County Animal Control is trying to capture those cats. “We’ve been setting traps daily for them,” said supervisor Tony Malaspina. They were still at large as of Tuesday morning.

“A good Samaritan had noticed a kitten with a bite wound,” said Ann Rose, environmental health sanitarian. “Unfortunately it died. We submitted it for testing and it came back positive. Some other animal with rabies bit the kitten.”

The man was bitten as he was trying to clean the kitten’s wound, she said. He was bitten on July 19.

Rabies is a potentially fatal virus transmitted through a bite or saliva contact with an infectious animal, the health department said. Any mammal can carry rabies.

“A kitten can be a real attractive animal to get involved with,” Rose said. However, “if a cat or a dog is infected with rabies, the virus is going to be shed by the saliva of the animal.”

It’s important for pet owners to keep their rabies vaccinations up to date, she said. “Our pets are our first line of protecting against rabies from wild animals.”

County government sent out automated calls Monday evening informing residents in the area about the potential for rabid animals.

There have been nine confirmed cases of rabies this year as of Aug. 10 in St. Mary’s County, Rose said, including a rabid skunk that bit a patron at the Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant in the Wildewood shopping center in June. There were 12 rabies cases in St. Mary’s in 2011, 10 in 2010 and 2009 and 33 in 2008. Since 2000, there have been 149 confirmed cases, seven of them cats. “Raccoons and skunks are the main carriers in our area,” Rose said.

Strange animal behavior should be reported to at 301-475-8018 during business hours and at 301-475-8016 after hours. Bites should be reported to the sheriff’s office at 301-475-4200, ext. 1900.

jbabcock@somdnews.com