, Salem, MA


May 2, 2014

Vet Connection: Rabies: How to avoid a killer virus

It probably seems inconceivable to most North Americans, but more than 55,000 people across the world die every year from rabies. This dreaded disease still ravages large areas of Asia and Africa and children are often the unfortunate victims. Recently a man on Cape Cod died from rabies virus encephalitis, which is an inflammation of the brain, after being bitten by a bat. It was the first death due to rabies in Massachusetts in 77 years. One or two people die from rabies each year in the United States. Overall, someone in the world dies from rabies every 10 minutes! Fortunately, global awareness is increasing due to World Rabies Day on Sept. 28.

Cats, dogs, raccoons and bats can carry the rabies virus most commonly. The first rabid bat was detected in Massachusetts in 1961. The first rabid raccoon was detected in 1992. If an animal is acting disoriented, lethargic, aggressive or uncoordinated there is a chance it has rabies. Rabies can be diagnosed only by examining brain tissue, so if a human has been bitten and the animal is not vaccinated against rabies virus it must be euthanized and tested. Over the past two decades, more than 10,000 bats have been submitted for testing by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Over the past decade, 4.2 percent of bat submissions tested positive for rabies virus.

How do you avoid getting rabies? Regular and timely vaccination of your dog and cat will be a great start. Your pet, even if it spends 100 percent of its time indoors, should be vaccinated against rabies vaccine. Bats are famous for getting indoors in attics and flying around people’s homes. Dogs love chasing and catching sick raccoons, bats, opossums and other animals. They love to eat dead animals and can pick up rabies just from contacting the dead animal’s saliva. Cats love to chase quick-moving, fluttering animals, so bats are a big draw for them. If your pet has been bitten or has consumed part of a potentially rabid animal and it is not vaccinated it should be euthanized and tested to prevent human exposure. If your pet bites a person and your pet is not vaccinated against rabies virus it will have to be quarantined for 10 days, and euthanized and tested for rabies if it exhibits any signs of the disease.

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