As veterinarians, we’ve noticed that many people tend to think that rabies is a thing of the past, but, unfortunately, that’s not the reality. According to the CDC, approximately 5,000 animal rabies cases are reported annually, with more than 90 percent of those occurring in wildlife. So while dogs and cats are no longer getting rabies as much as they did in the mid-1900s, the principal hosts in the U.S. today are raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes. And while human deaths are rare these days, they do occur, usually in the cases where the affected person doesn’t seek immediate medical care. Those in rabies research believe that this is likely due to a general lack of knowledge of rabies and because bites - particularly in bats - can be extremely small and either not discovered or easily dismissed.
As the CDC notes, “This decline can be attributed to successful pet vaccination and animal control programs, public health surveillance and testing, and availability of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) for rabies.” For that reason, Tuesday, September 28, has been designated as World Rabies Day – a day to raise awareness of the public health impact to both pets and humans. This day is also about educating pet owners about risks and prevention to keep rabies at bay. This year’s World Rabies Day theme is “Rabies: Facts, Not Fear,” with the goal being to dispel myths surrounding rabies and the life-saving vaccine.
What is Rabies?
Rabies is a deadly disease affecting only mammals, caused by a virus that aggressively attacks the nervous system. It is secreted in saliva and usually transmitted to an animal by a bite from an infected animal. While many cases occur in wild animals, cats are now the most common domestic animal infected with rabies due primarily to owners not vaccinating them but still allowing them to be exposed to wildlife. Vaccines are available for cats and dogs to help combat the spread of the virus, which is required by law (note: the rabies vaccine for cats is not required by law in all states, but as veterinarians, we always recommend it) and nearly always required by boarding facilities, pet daycares, and groomers.
Once your pet is exhibiting symptoms of rabies, the virus nearly always proves fatal.
As the rabies virus enters your pet’s body, it travels along the nerves to the brain, leading to the following:
- Excessive drooling
- Trouble swallowing
- Staggered gait
A wild animal is almost always identified as rabid due to their lack of fear of humans and unusual behavior such as wandering during the day despite being nocturnal. There is no cure for rabies, with the infection only confirmed post-mortem with an examination of the brain.
Preventing Rabies in Your Pets
Thanks to modern-day veterinary medicine, rabies is entirely preventable in our precious cats and dogs.
The following are the most effective ways to prevent rabies in your pets:
- Get your cats and dogs vaccinated and stay on top of the recommended frequency to ensure they remain protected from the virus for their entire lifespan.
- Do not allow your pets to roam free, increasing the likelihood of encountering wild, rabid animals.
- Consider spaying or neutering your cats and dogs, which reduces their desire and tendency to roam.
- Always monitor your pet when outside, even if they’re in an enclosed fence.
- Avoid leaving garbage outside, as this attracts wild animals that could be rabid.
- If you see a wild animal acting out of character, contact your local animal control office and report the animal’s location.
- Ensure your home is sealed well enough to avoid entry by bats and keep your garage doors closed to prevent raccoons and other wildlife from entering.
Steps to Take If Your Pet is Bitten
Even the most protective pet parents can let their guard down, resulting in their pet being exposed to a rabid animal and even bitten. If this happens, take the following steps immediately:
Contact your veterinarian, and even if your pet is vaccinated, take them in for an examination and potentially revaccination. Report the rabid animal and the bite to your local animal control department. If vaccinated, observe your pet for the period designated for your state or local law, keeping them in your immediate possession and avoiding contact with all other animals. If your cat or dog has never been vaccinated against rabies, talk to your veterinarian and animal control authorities about options to isolate and monitor or euthanize to avoid the painful deterioration that comes with rabies.
The AVMA offers additional insight about rabies, including the steps to take if your dog bites a pet or human. Learn more about World Rabies Day and educate yourself on this deadly virus to ensure your furry family members are protected for life. If you'd like more information about how to protect your pets against rabies, please give us a call. We're here to help, especially when it comes to pivotal preventive care for dogs and cats.