In this blog post, I’d like to discuss the importance of vaccinating your pets against rabies.
I chose this topic for this month because September 28, 2016 will be the 10th World Rabies Day. What is rabies? It is a viral infection that is transmitted via saliva or neural tissue and can be transmitted to any mammal. Usually the saliva is delivered through a bite, but can also be from scratches, either because the pet groomed itself, or was dripping saliva onto its feet because it could not properly swallow. Some of us “old-timers” might remember our first knowledge of rabies from the movie “Cujo”, where a sweet St. Bernard was bitten by a bat, and developed the disease that made him horribly aggressive, foaming at the mouth, and killing everything in sight. Obviously, real rabies doesn’t work quite that way, but it does make animals behave differently from their normal. Some have the “mad” form, where they do seem aggressive and may attack without provocation. Others do not, and may actually behave more affectionately.
While most of us in the US are a little familiar with rabies and at least know we are supposed to vaccinate our pets, most of us don’t realize what a serious crisis it is globally. According to rabiesalliance.org, 59,000 humans die each year from this disease, primarily through dog bites. Most of these cases are in Africa and Asia, where vaccination is not as common. But unfortunately, the US is not rabies-free.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2013-2014 there were 11,898 cases of animal rabies (wild and domestic) and 4 human cases in the US. Four human cases may not seem like much, but considering it is nearly 100% fatal and completely preventable, it is still too many. Most of the animal cases were in wildlife, but 445 cases were in domestic animals. Of those domestic animals, a full 61% (272 cases) were in cats. Many of these are feral cats, but not all. The second most commonly affected domestic species was cattle, yes, cattle (78)! Third are dogs (59). The remaining cases were horses/mules (25), sheep/goats (10), and a llama (1). Nationwide numbers might seem abstract and not mean much, but think about it closer to home. From 2010-2013 there were 24 cases in Orange Co, and 12 in Brevard. And those were only from animals tested, the actual number of infections is likely much higher.
It might seem surprising that the number of cat cases is larger than dogs, especially since dog bites are the biggest cause of human rabies globally. Much of that is likely due to the push that state governments have placed on vaccination. In the state of Florida, it is legally required for all owners to vaccinate their dogs, cats and ferrets (recommended for horses and livestock with contact to humans). Unfortunately, many pet owners do not vaccinate their indoor-only cats and ferrets, since they never go anywhere. But unfortunately, daily I see people looking for their indoor-only cat that escaped when the family had visitors, or during a move, home repair, etc. My personal first rabies exposure came from a small stray kitten that was brought to the clinic where I worked as an assistant. It had been attacked and had many wounds, but one of the vets hoped to save it so we performed surgery and dealt with the more minor wounds. A few days later, she seemed “off”, and after another couple of days she couldn’t walk. She was euthanized and sent for testing. She tested positive. I won’t go into details, but I can assure you that post-exposure rabies treatment is not fun, and includes a LOT of shots.
Because of the risk to people, veterinarians are often placed into a tight spot. We are required to follow the law, which means if your pet comes in for another reason, but is well enough for the rabies vaccine, we must administer that vaccine. Likewise, if you find a cat or kitten (or any other mammal), if it shows ANY neurological symptoms, we have to discuss the possibility of rabies with you. This is not meant to scare you, or to keep you from helping helpless animals, it is because we care about you and your families, and want you to be safe.
Likewise, we want your pets to be safe. If your pet is bitten by an unknown animal, she may have to be quarantined. If your unvaccinated pet comes into contact with a known rabies infected animal, it will either have to be euthanized or quarantined for 180 days, and will be required by FL statute to receive 6 rabies vaccines during quarantine. The cost of this is the owner’s responsibility.
Obviously, the best option for you and your pets is to make sure they are all up to date on the vaccine. If your pet gets into a skirmish with an unfamiliar animal, whether wild or domestic, please be careful after the fight. It’s hard to think straight when you are afraid for your pet, but the FL Health Dept. recommends that you put on gloves before examining you pet for wounds. If you don’t find any, bathe the pet to remove saliva and bring it to a veterinarian for an exam and possibly a vaccine booster. Again, the best way to protect your pets and family from this horrible disease is vaccination. Vaccination is a truly inexpensive way to peace of mind.
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