Rabies – Controlling The Threat

Rabies. Almost everyone knows how scary this disease is- because it is fatal to both people and pets. Most people believe that rabies is well under control due to vaccinations and regulations. But what you may not know is that every spring and summer, we see an emergence of rabies. Worse yet exposure to rabies can happen in your own backyard.

The reason rabies continues to be of concern each year is because of a “spillover” of the rabies virus that lives in the wildlife population. Spring and summer are the seasons when most wildlife is very active and on the move, and there is an increased exposure of our pets to wildlife – even if you live in the city. While it is true that the majority of rabies cases occur in wildlife, most exposure to humans occurs when they are bitten by a domestic animal that has been exposed to rabies. That is why current rabies vaccinations are so important for our pets.

The primary wildlife reservoir hosts are bats, skunks, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, and wild dogs. These are also the wildlife that our pets are most likely to encounter. Some people are under the assumption that their pet is not exposed to wild life, but I have had 3 cases in the last month where the dog or cat picked up a bat that had fallen into to backyard or had flown into the house through the chimney. The primary hosts vary in different parts of the country. Keeping both dogs and cats vaccinated, and limiting your direct contact to wildlife is the best way to protect you and your pets from rabies. Rabies vaccination regulations also vary from state to state and your veterinarian is your best resource for rabies information.

Still, with all of the knowledge and vaccination protocols available, each year, there are rabies incidents reported in people, so it is important to know what to do if you think you may have been exposed to rabies. The rabies virus is usually transmitted in the saliva through a bite. Everyone should consider ANY animal bite – whether from wildlife or pets – as an emergency and get prompt medical attention. Animal bites should also be reported to your local animal control so that proper quarantine measures can be taken if necessary.

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Any wildlife animal that bites a person or pet will be euthanized and tested for rabies immediately. But what if the bite is from a domestic animal? If a person or pet is bitten and the dog or cat is vaccinated and appears healthy at the time of the bite, the pet can be confined by its owner for ten days and observed. No anti-rabies shots would be required. Unvaccinated pets may be required to be euthanized and tested. If the owner is unwilling to do this, the pets must be quarantined for six months and vaccinated before release. If a vaccinated pet is bitten by a rabies suspect, the pet must be kept under observation for 45 days.

The reason for these time periods is due to the incubation time of the rabies virus in the host. Studies show that unless the virus is shed in the saliva, it is not transmitted. Only late in the disease when the virus has reached the brain and caused an encephalitis does the virus shed in the saliva and therefore able to be transmitted. Most of the signs are very obvious within three to five days of the quarantine and observation period.

Rabies vaccination for your pets – dogs and cats – is still the number one prevention you can take. Keep proper rabies and identification tags on your pets at all times. Always maintain control of your pets, and have them spayed or neutered to help reduce the number of stray animals in your community. Report any stray or wildlife animals to your local animal control. Do not try to capture an animal yourself. Consider any stray animal as a rabies risk.

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