A rabid kitten bit a woman in the Shaw neighborhood, and Health Department officials are asking anyone who was bitten by any animal in the District in the past week to contact the department.

The kitten is only the third rabid cat to be found in the city since 1988, said Ted Gordon, the department's senior deputy director for operations. The 8-week-old kitten was a feral, or wild, cat that lived in an alley in the 1100 block of S St. NW, Gordon said.

It was trapped and tested after a resident of the block contacted the city to say she had been bitten, Gordon said. When tests of the kitten's brain tissue proved positive, the woman began a series of shots to protect herself against the rabies infection, Gordon said.

He said traps have been set in the alley for other cats in the colony.

Last night, Carrie Tew, a resident of the block, said neighbors had been talking about the incident and that they were waiting for information from the Health Department.

Rabies, also known as hydrophobia, is an acute viral infection of the nervous system. Rabies primarily affects animals, but it can be transmitted from a rabid animal to a person by a bite or by a lick over a break in the skin.

The virus, present in the animal's saliva, travels from the wound along the nerve pathways to the brain, where it causes inflammation that results in delirium, painful muscle spasms in the throat and other severe symptoms. Once the symptoms develop, human rabies is usually fatal.

For an animal to be tested for rabies, it has to be killed, Gordon said. If a bite is not involved, the suspect animal may be quarantined.

"It's hard for anyone to know if an animal has rabies," he said. "We ask residents to call us if they have any concerns about an animal."

Gordon cautioned residents not to pet or feed any wild animals and to contact the health department to report any strays in their neighborhood. He also said cat and dog owners should make sure their pets' rabies shots are up to date.

In response to the discovery, the District government is offering free rabies shots for pets belonging to city residents. The shots are being offered at the animal shelter at 1201 New York Ave. NE from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday and again from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday. Gordon said animals need to be 4 months old to be vaccinated.

He said the department has a 24-hour phone line at 202-576-6664 for reports of bites or strays.

Staff writer Allan Lengel and Metro researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.