Minimizing the Risks of Contracting Rabies Disease

Rabies disease is caused by a virus that attacks the central nervous system.  All mammals have the potential to be infected.  With a few rare exceptions of human cases, rabies is uniformly fatal once signs are present.

The disease presents as the “somnolent” (sleepy) form, or “mad” (aggressive) form.  Possible signs include lethargy, aggression, drooling, changes in personality, changes in mentation, shaking, seizures and death.

One of the saddest things I experienced in veterinary school was also the only clinical case of rabies that I have seen.  I had heard that there was a potentially rabid steer in the barns, and so I rushed to see him, because…rabid steer!  When I arrived at his stall, he was in the corner drooling and trying to remain standing and fighting to hold his eyes open.  He was humanely euthanized the same day, and rabies was confirmed with the identification of rabies virus in his brain tissue at a specialized laboratory, which is the only test that is currently able to reliably confirm or rule out rabies disease.

Prevalence of Human Rabies Disease

Because of the widespread vaccination of pets and the availability of post-exposure prophylaxis for people, cases of human rabies in the United States are rare.  Most cases of human rabies in the United States are secondary to bites from bats.

Sadly, in many parts of Asia and Africa, human rabies is not rare.  Most cases of human rabies in these areas are secondary to bites from semi-feral dogs and free roaming pet dogs infected with the rabies virus by wild animals.  Many of the people infected are children who are bitten by their dogs upon returning to the community.  A campaign is now going on in parts of Africa to provide rabies vaccinations to the pet dogs in the area in order to protect the dogs themselves, and in turn their families.

Protecting Pets and People

All dogs, cats and ferrets should be vaccinated against rabies between twelve and sixteen weeks of age, one year later and then every one to three years depending on the individual pet, the vaccine used and local laws regarding rabies vaccination.

Can I have titers tested instead?

No, a corrolation has not been proven between rabies titers in dogs, cats and ferrets and protective immunity, so at this time, vaccination is required.  Titer testing is often done to confirm the presence of antibodies against rabies, for instance, when pets travel internationally or to Hawaii, but this is an adjunct to vaccination, not a replacement.  This may change if a corrolation can be proven between rabies titers and protective immunity, as has been done with canine distemper and canine parvo virus.

Even so, vaccination of most pets will probably continue to be the biggest component of our fight against rabies because of the fatal nature of the disease and the high success rate of vaccinations in protecting pets and people.  We do not want to take any unneeded chances, and vaccination against rabies protects the individual pet as well as every pet and person he or she may potentially contact.

What do I do if I have been exposed to a known rabid animal?

If a bite was involved, scrub the wound well and visit your human medical doctor for wound care and post-exposure prophylaxis, which consists of an injection of rabies immunoglobulin and a series of four rabies vaccinations.  Even if you have not been bitten, but may have been exposed to bodily fluids of a rabid animal, post-exposure prophylaxis may be recommended.  Make sure the situation is reported to local authorities.

What do I do if I have been bitten by an unvaccinated animal or animal of unknown status?

Scrub the wound well and visit your human medical doctor immediately for wound care and assessment to determine if post-exposure prophylaxis is needed.  Report the bite to local authorities.

If the animal that bit you is available and can be safely secured, have them contained.  A wild animal will be humanely euthanized and the brain tissue tested for rabies virus.  A pet will usually be quarantined at a veterinary hospital or humane society for ten days.  If neurological signs develop during the quarantine period, he or she will be humanely euthanized and the brain tissue tested for rabies virus.  If rabies is confirmed, the person or people exposed will need to undergo post-exposure prophylaxis.

If neurological signs do not develop in the pet during the ten days, the pet will be vaccinated against rabies at the end of the quarantine period and returned to his or her family.

Why ten days?

Once rabies disease becomes clinical, it is rapidly fatal, usually within ten days.  If the bite was secondary to aggression caused by rabies disease, further signs or death will most likely develop within the ten days of quarantine.

What do I do if my unvaccinated pet has been bitten by a known or suspected rabid animal or unknown animal?

Have your pet seen by the veterinarian right away for wound care and assessment for rabies risk.  Report the bite to local authorities.

If the animal that bit your pet is available and can be safely secured, have them contained.  A wild animal will be humanely euthanized and the brain tissue tested for rabies virus.  A pet will usually be quarantined at a veterinary hospital or humane society for ten days.  If neurological signs develop during the quarantine period, he or she will be humanely euthanized and the brain tissue tested for rabies virus.

If the animal that bit your pet can not be contained and confirmed to be rabies-free, your pet will probably be required to be quarantined away from other pets and people either at your home or at a veterinary hospital or humane society (depending on local and state laws) for six months and vaccinated at the beginning of the quarantine period.

Why six months?

If rabies disease is going to develop, clinical signs will usually begin between two weeks and six months after exposure to the rabies virus.  During the quarantine, if your pet develops any neurological signs or abnormal behavior, report the changes to your veterinarian right away.

What do I do if my vaccinated pet has been bitten by a known or suspected rabid animal or unknown animal?

Have your pet seen by the veterinarian right away for wound care and assessment for rabies risk.  Report the bite to local authorities.  Your pet may be required to be quarantined away from other pets and people at your home for six months and should be revaccinated at the beginning of the quarantine period.

If the animal that bit your pet is available and can be safely secured, have them contained.  A wild animal will be humanely euthanized and the brain tissue tested for rabies virus.  A pet will usually be quarantined at a veterinary hospital or humane society for ten days.  If neurological signs develop during the quarantine period, he or she will be humanely euthanized and the brain tissue tested for rabies virus.

What do I do if my vaccinated pet has been bitten by another vaccinated pet?

Have your pet seen by the veterinarian right away for wound care.  Report the bite to local authorities.  Your pet is at very low risk for contracting rabies disease.  The animal who has bitten will probably be required to be quarantined away from other pets and people at their home for ten days.

What if euthanasia of the animal who has bitten is chosen over quarantine?

If  the animal who has bitten is euthanized or passes away at any time before ten days post-bite, the brain tissue should be tested for the presence of rabies virus.

Should my pet be vaccinated against rabies disease?

Yes!  Yearly or every three years, depending on your individual pet and local laws.  Pets with certain immune conditions or illnesses may be exempt from vaccination, depending on your veterinarian’s recommendation and local laws.

Should I be vaccinated against rabies disease?

Maybe!  The human rabies vaccination is recommended for veterinarians, veterinary technicians and animal control officers.  Consult your MD about the vaccine.  A series of two vaccinations are given, and titers are routinely tested.  If titers are low, revaccination is recommended.

Do I need to know anything else about rabies?

I hope not!  You should learn as much as you need to in order to minimize the risks of contracting rabies disease for you and your pets.  Let this be a starting place.  Make sure you also consult the following three teams…

  1. Your human medical team – Your own doctor can help you determine your personal risk and whether rabies vaccination is recommended.  Please visit your human medical team immediately as well if you are ever bitten or scratched.
  2. Your veterinary team – Your own veterinarian can help you determine your pets’ risk and personal rabies vaccination schedule.  Please consult your veterinary team if your pet is bitten or scratched or has bitten or scratched another pet or person.
  3. Local authorities – Your local authorities are your best resource for community-specific laws regarding rabies.  All bites to people and pets should be reported.  The local authorities can also help determine the best course of action in specific cases to best minimize the risks of contracting rabies disease for pets and people.
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May you never deal with rabies disease in Real Life except for taking the steps needed to keep yourself and your pets healthy and safe.

 

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