Dr. Elizabeth Bradt
---- — As more and more people question the need to vaccinate their pets against infectious diseases, veterinarians are increasingly concerned about the resurgence of a killer. Thankfully, rabies is rare here in North America, but a reservoir of the disease is present in our wildlife. What’s the chance of your pet encountering a rabid animal?
It’s a scenario that happens all too often as urban sprawl encounters rural farmland and wooded areas. You hear aggressive barking and maybe a high-pitched “yip” or two. Looking out your window, you see your beloved dog in an all-out battle with a raccoon! After breaking up the fight, your mind races as you check your dog for wounds and wonder about the chance of rabies.
Every year in North America, the Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov) monitors the prevalence of rabies. Thousands of wild animals test positive every year and, despite mandatory vaccines for pets, hundreds of cats, dogs, horses and other domestic animals contract this killer, as well. The good news is that rabies cases in people and domestic animals have decreased throughout the 20th century, but only continued vigilance will ensure our ongoing safety.
Several variant strains of rabies exist in North America, including strains found in skunks, raccoon, foxes and bats. Although these different rabies variants prefer certain hosts, they are capable of infecting almost any mammal, including people. And, despite reports of the canine strain of rabies being extinct in the United States, vaccines are still needed to protect our pets and us.
Laws may vary slightly, but all states require dogs to be vaccinated against rabies. Many also require cats and pet ferrets to be vaccinated, as well. For most pets, an initial vaccine after 12 weeks of age starts the series and this vaccine is “boosted” when the pet is a year old. Depending on local laws and the veterinarian’s discretion, your pet might be vaccinated with a “three-year” or a “one-year” vaccine.
There is also an ongoing study that is attempting to determine how long these vaccines provide immunity for our pets. The Rabies Challenge Fund (www.rabieschallengefund.org) was established in 2005 with a goal of determining how well vaccinated dogs are protected against rabies after five and seven years.
Thankfully, until this and other research is complete, you do have good guidelines to follow when it comes to protecting your pets.
First and foremost, follow recommendations from your veterinarian and local rabies ordinances. These laws are in place to help place a level of protection between potentially rabid wildlife and your family. Some veterinarians use a non-adjuvanted rabies vaccine (a vaccine with additives) as a way to help minimize adverse vaccine reactions and vaccine-related tumors, especially in their feline patients.
These vaccinations can also be a lifesaver if your pet does come into contact with a wild animal. If your pet is not vaccinated and fights with an unknown wild animal or even a confirmed rabid one, you will need to quarantine your pet for six months (although this can vary by region). This extended observation period is meant to keep the animal under control in the event it does develop rabies. It is also a costly endeavor. A six-month stay at an approved quarantine facility might cost more than $1,500. Compare that expense to the cost of a physical exam and a rabies vaccine. Sadly, many dogs have lost their lives because of this economic factor.
Never assume that your “indoor-only” pet is safe from rabies either. Bats, the largest reservoir of rabies in North America, can find their way into homes very easily. Attracted to their fluttering flight or a dying bat on the floor, our pets, especially cats, risk exposure. And, since bat bites are almost undetectable because of their size, you might miss the fact that your pet has been bitten.
Finally, always contact an animal control officer or wildlife expert if you see a wild animal acting strangely. Because of the deadly nature of this disease, you should never attempt to capture a wild animal on your own.
When traveling in a foreign country, never contact dogs or cats that are wandering. Rabies prevention in other countries may not be as strict as it is here. Our practice had an intern who went to Africa to work with orphaned primates. When she came home, she was informed that the dog she had been in contact with had rabies. She went through a series of rabies vaccinations and never showed symptoms. Other American citizens who were not so lucky as to be alerted to their contact with a rabid animal in a foreign country have died from rabies.
World Rabies Awareness Day happens every Sept. 28. Although we rarely see human rabies deaths in our countries, more than 55,000 people die from rabies annually in Asia and Africa. That’s one person every 10 minutes. What’s even sadder is that many of these deaths are children. For those of us in North America, these deaths may seem remote, but we should never lose sight that this killer still lurks in our own backyard.
A rabies vaccine clinic sponsored by Veterinary Association of the North Shore will take place in many North Shore towns on May 1 from 4 to 6 p.m.
Dr. Elizabeth Bradt is a 1986 graduate of Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and is the owner of All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Salem (www.creaturehealth.com). She is a member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists. Email your pet questions to email@example.com. Please title your email “Vet Connection.”