September 28, 2019 has been designated as World Rabies Day. Many countries including the United States are observing this day in order to raise awareness about this disease and to bring partners together worldwide to promote the prevention and control of rabies worldwide. The theme of this year’s World Rabies Day is “Vaccinate to Eliminate”. We can do our part by making certain that our dogs, cats and ferrets, are up to date on their rabies vaccinations.
Although rabies is a disease that is 100% preventable, more that 59,000 people die from this deadly disease around the world every year. Most of these cases occur in rural communities in the world’s poorest countries, especially in Asia and Africa, and children have the highest rate of infection and death. Unvaccinated dogs are responsible for transmitting almost 98% of these cases. In the U.S., there are, on average, 400 – 500 cases of rabies in our domestic pets each year but almost 5,000 cases in our wildlife. In April of this year, a rabies positive skunk was found in Greene County, Georgia; thus, it is imperative that you have your pets vaccinated as a Georgia resident.
What is Rabies?
Rabies is a deadly disease caused by a virus that attacks the nervous systems. The virus is secreted through the saliva of infected animals and is usually transmitted to people and other animals through bites. Once an animal or person shows signs of rabies, it is almost always fatal. Rabies has been known to mankind for over 4,000 years. The name rabies is derived from the Latin term “rabies” which translated means “to rage”. The rabies virus will usually enter the brain and animals will exhibit changes in behavior including becoming extremely vicious or acting as “in rage” where the Latin term originated.
What Animals Get Rabies?
All mammals are susceptible to rabies. In the U.S., most cases of rabies occur in wildlife – mainly skunks, raccoons, foxes, and bats. Each of these animals serve as reservoirs for the disease and each of these wildlife groups has developed a special variation of the virus. In the U.S., we have been able to eliminate the canine variety of the rabies virus through a very successful vaccination campaign for our dogs. However, our dogs and cats are susceptible to the other strains of the virus and still need to be vaccinated to protect them from these other strains. Humans are also susceptible to all these strains of the rabies virus. Rabies occurs in horses, cattle, pigs, sheep and goats too, but less commonly than found in our pets. Cats that live outdoors, often are not vaccinated, and are especially apt to be exposed to wildlife and rabid animals.
What Are the Signs of Rabies?
Once rabies enters the body, it travels along the nerves to the brain. Animals with rabies may show a variety of signs, including fearfulness, aggression, excessive drooling, difficulty swallowing, staggering, and seizures, Aggressive behavior is common but rabid animals may also demonstrate uncharacteristic affection. Another form of rabies is call paralytic or dumb rabies where an animal is depressed, uncoordinated and becomes completely paralyzed prior to death. Animals manifesting either form of the disease will effectively transmit the disease. Rabid wild animals may lose their natural fear of humans and display unusual behavior such as nocturnal animals wondering and approaching people during the daytime. Rabies can only be confirmed after death, through the microscopic examination of the animal’s brain.
How Great of a Risk is Rabies to Humans?
Rabies remains a major concern worldwide because many countries do not have strong or effective vaccination programs for domestic and stray dogs. Rabies vaccinations, animal control programs and better treatments for humans after they have been bitten, have dramatically reduced the number of cases in the U.S. Today, more than half the human rabies exposures in our country have resulted from rabid bats. Thus, any contact with bats, even if a bite is not noticed, should be reported to your physician. Bats have very small teeth and their bites can be very tiny but still capable of transmitting the rabies virus. There have been just 40 human cases of rabies in the U.S. since 2003 and 12 of these cases were from exposures outside of the U.S. In the rest of the world, dogs are the most common carrier of rabies, particularly in Asia and Africa, so travelers need to be aware of this risk when they travel abroad.
How has the Threat of Rabies Changed in the U.S.?
Before 1960, most human cases of rabies in this country came from infected dog bites. Since that time, successful rabies vaccination campaigns for our pets and expanded leash laws have greatly reduced dog rabies. The U.S. is now free of the canine strain of rabies that is found in much of the rest of the world and now our exposures are occurring from wildlife especially bats. In 2016, there were 4.910 confirmed cases of rabies in animals in the U.S. Of these cases, 33.5% came from bats, 28% from raccoons, 21% from skunks, 6.4% from foxes, 5.2% from cats and 1.2% from dogs. There are also regional differences in occurrences and in 2016, more than half of all animal rabies cases came from just 5 states – Virginia, Pennsylvania, Texas, New York and Maryland. The different strains of the rabies virus are maintained in their respective wildlife populations or niches; however, the viruses spill over into domestic pets and humans from exposures and pets and people can are still susceptible to and can acquire rabies from any of these species or viral strains.
What If I Get Bitten?
Rabies in humans can be prevented by eliminating exposures from rabid animals or by providing people exposed to rabies with prompt postexposure prophylaxis (PEP). PEP consists of local treatments of bite wounds in combination with the administration of human rabies immunoglobulin followed by several vaccine injections. Today’s PEP is much superior to past treatments and there is seldom any reaction to the injections; it has also been proven extremely safe and effective. Thus, there is no excuse in delaying treatment if it is recommended. Last year in the U.S., approximately 55,000 PEP treatments were administered to people with possible exposures. If you believe that you might have been exposed, don’t panic but also don’t ignore the bite. If you are bitten, wash the wound rigorously and thoroughly with lots of soap and water and then treat it with a disinfectant like iodine. Then call your physician immediately, explain the circumstances of your possible exposure and follow the physician’s advice. Also try to identify the animal that bit you – is it a local pet, a stray dog/cat or what type of wildlife was involved? If the bite was from a dog or cat, call the local animal control officers to collect it if possible.
What If My Pet is Bitten?
If your pet is bitten, consult your veterinarian immediately and report the bite to local animal control authorities. Even if your dog, cat or ferret has a current vaccination, he/she should be re-vaccinated immediately, kept under an owner’s control and observed for a period as specified by state law (usually 10 days). Pets that are bitten but have expired vaccinations, will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis; you should work out the details with your local veterinarian. Pets that have never been vaccinated and are exposed to a rabid animal may need to be euthanized in accordance with regulations or placed in strict quarantine for several months. Remember that rabies vaccines will almost always prevent your pet from acquiring rabies when bitten by a rabid animal; therefore, it makes the most sense to keep them up to date on their rabies vaccinations. It is a good idea to keep your rabies vaccination certificate or proof of vaccination available to help you remember your pet’s vaccination history and as a source of information for veterinarians.
What If My Pet Bites Someone?
If your pet bites a person, urge the victim to see a physician immediately and to follow the physician’s recommendations. Then check with your veterinarian to make sure that your pet is up to date on its rabies vaccination. You should report the bite to the local health department and animal control authorities. Often your pet will need to be confined under your control to monitor for any signs of rabies. If your pet exhibits any unusual behavior, contact your veterinarian and the local health department. You must make certain that the pet is under control and able to be carefully observed. After the observation period, have your pet vaccinated for rabies if the pet’s vaccination is not current.
When Should a Pet Be Vaccinated and How Often?
Rabies vaccinations should only be administered by a licensed veterinarian and the dog, cat or ferret can usually receive its first vaccination at about 3 months of age. This initial vaccination should be followed up by another rabies vaccination a year later. After this sequence, your veterinarian will work with you and set up continual vaccinations at either 1-or 3-year intervals. There are different types of rabies vaccines that require different protocols to ensure full protection of your pet. Remember that all dogs, cats and ferrets must be vaccinated for rabies even if they spend most of their time indoors. Vaccinating your pet not only protects them from rabies but also reduces the risk for you and your family. Additionally, spaying or neutering pets will reduce the number of potential strays that would be susceptible and possibly exposed to rabies. Keeping your pet on a leash when outdoors also helps to prevent inadvertent exposure to rabies in wildlife.
Does the State of Georgia Have Laws Pertaining to Rabies?
Georgia has a legal requirement that all dogs, cats and ferrets be vaccinated for rabies and the vaccines can only be administered by a licensed veterinarian. The minimal age requirement is 3 months and pets must be continuously vaccinated over their entire lifetime. The primary responsibility for the control of rabies in Georgia rests with individual county Boards of Health. They also promulgate rules and regulations for the prevention and control of rabies including quarantine periods. County Boards of Health have websites that spell out the specifics of these programs for their respective counties.
What Can I Do to Help Control Rabies?
Remember that rabies is entirely preventable through vaccinations. You should make certain that your pet receives its rabies vaccination and remains up to date for its entire life. You can prevent possible exposure to rabies by not allowing you dog or cat to roam free and supervise them when they are outside. Spaying and neutering pets may decrease roaming tendencies and will prevent them from contributing to the birth of unwanted animals in our communities. It is helpful not to leave exposed garbage or pet food outside, as it may attract wild or stray animals. Try to observe wild animals only from a distance especially if their behavior is not normal. A rabid animal may appear tame, but you should not go near it. Children should be warned to NEVER handle unfamiliar animals even if they appear friendly. If you see a wild animal acting strangely, report it to local animal control authorities. If possible, work to bat-proof homes or other structures from nesting thus reducing their access to people or pets.
Are Dog and Cats at the Oconee Regional Humane Society (ORHS) Vaccinated?
All the dogs and cats under the care of the ORHS are vaccinated for rabies as well as for several other infections. They have been carefully examined, screened, spayed or neutered and thus are offered for adoption in good health and already vaccinated for rabies. This is another reason to consider adopting a pet from the ORHS.
World Rabies Day has been designated to remind us that rabies is the deadliest disease in the world, but it is also completely preventable. As pet owners, we all have a crucial role to play in preventing this lethal disease. Please celebrate this special day by vaccinating your pet!