'Mad death': How a rabies epidemic spread through Leeds

In 1895, an outbreak of the fatal animal-borne disease rabies spread through Leeds, creating panic in its wake.

The acute viral infection attacks the nervous system and is deadly for humans if left untreated following a bite from an infected animal.

Strict quarantine regulations mean the disease has pretty much been eradicated from the UK - but in Victorian Leeds it could cause mass terror and unofficial 'culls' of household pets.

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The outbreak began in Bradford in the autumn of 1894, when a three-year-old boy was bitten on the hand by a neighbour's terrier. The wound initially looked to have healed, although the dog's behaviour became erratic and it strangled itself with its own leash while running around a table in a frenzy.

How the Leeds cholera epidemic led to medical progressTen weeks later, in January 1895, the little boy began to show symptoms of rabies. He became feverish and delirious, and developed a fear of water. A doctor diagnosed rabies, but nothing could be done for the child, who began to froth at the mouth and yelp before he died.

Leeds dog bite patient tested for rabies in 2012The next victim was a young man who was bitten by a rabid pony in Horsforth while trying to calm the frenzied animal while it was tearing around its stable. A vet killed the pony with a hammer after suspecting rabies. In Town Street, a rabid cat was caught and killed.

In nearby Rodley, another cat was killed with an iron bar after it lunged at a mother and her two-year-old son, and attacked several other people and a dog. The only chance of survival for the pair was treatment at the pioneering Louis Pasteur Institute in Paris, and a wealthy gentleman from Calverley paid for their travel expenses, although it is not known if they recovered.

Another rabid dog attacked several people in Headingley, prompting calls for a mass cull of stray pets - around 1,000 dogs and cats were eventually killed. An order was issued for dogs to be kept muzzled at all times. Over 80 dog owners were prosecuted for flouting the rules in just one month, but eventually the outbreak was contained and subsided.

No human has died from 'domestic' rabies in the UK since 1902, and there has not been a local case in an animal since 1922. Occasional cases have been discovered in people infected abroad, and there have been 22 deaths since 1946.

All animals entering the UK are now required by law to spend six months in quarantine.

Read local historian James Rhodes's account of the 1895 rabies outbreak on his blog rhodesysite.wordpress.com/2018/05/19/the-mad-death-of-1895/