Rabies All You Need to Know As A Pet Owner

Rabies virus nearly kills any animal that becomes infected as well as can be transmitted to humans. This article will give you some information about the virus and the disease as well as how to protect your pets from getting rabies.

Wendy C. Brooks DVM, DABVP from Veterinary Information Network Rabies is caused by a bullet-shaped rhabdovirus that is relatively unstable in the environment; establishing infection requires direct contact with infected mucous membranes. In most cases, disease is transmitted by a bite wound. Only mammals are susceptible to infection, wildlife being the primary animal group where infection occurs. When wildlife come into contact with humans or domestic animals, rabies becomes a public health problem. Despite vaccination being readily available, every year the U.S. reports hundreds of dog and cat deaths from rabies, not to mention several human deaths. Worldwide some 55,000 human deaths from rabies occur and rabies remains an important and nearly untreatable illness even now in the 21st century. Rabies is nearly untreatable once symptoms begin despite all the resources of modern medicine; it is important to take its threat seriously. It is because of rabies that most municipalities have dog licensing requirements to ensure that the community's dogs (and in some areas, cats as well) are vaccinated. Rabies is most commonly spread through wildlife in North America. Raccoon, skunk, bat, fox and coyote are the wildlife that spread the disease to our pet dogs and cats. Most people don’t realize that once symptoms begin that the animal or human will die within 10 days. The virus lives in the saliva of the infected animal that is showing symptoms who then proceeds to bite another animal or human which transfers the virus into their nervous system. The process from bite to brain CAN TAKE UP TO A YEAR, the average time from bite to the virus being in the brain of dogs is 21-80 days.

Once the neurologic symptoms start treatment is really not possible. The neurologic symptoms start with just mild behavioral changes and progress to seizures and paralysis. There is no test for rabies in a living animal, so the animal will either die within 10 days or it does not have rabies. If a domestic animal has been exposed through a bite or scratch to a wildlife species acting strangely and the animal can be caught, it will be humanely euthanized and the brain tested for rabies. While the results of the test are being processed the domestic animal will be quarantined to make sure there is no exposure to other animals.

The rabies virus is only stable outside of the host for 4 hours unless in tissue or at a temperature below refrigeration level, less than 37 degrees. This should be a comfort to all of us to know that there isn’t rabies virus lying around on rocks, grass, leaves, our pet’s fur, or anywhere around our homes. However, those of us veterinarians are at 300 times the risk of the general population of getting exposed to rabies. The majority of the veterinary population is vaccinated against rabies like our dogs and cats and horses.

Rabies virus can be prevented through vaccination of our domestic pets. The first vaccine they will receive is good for one year and then each vaccine after that is good for 3 years. Every state has slightly different requirements for the rabies vaccine and protocol. If your pet has been exposed to a rabid animal and has been vaccinated he or she is protected and will just require some post exposure vaccines but make sure to check with the local state veterinary board or your local veterinarian to make sure.

When a human has been bitten by a domestic dog or cat that has been vaccinated, the wound is treated by a physician and the animal is quarantined and examined for rabies after 10 days. There is no way they could have transmitted the disease through their bite unless they begin to show symptoms within those 10 days.

If you are ever exposed please read the suggestions below from Dr. Wendy Brooks.

Wendy Brooks DVM, DABVP, from Veterinary Information Network A fresh bite wound should be washed out with water quickly as this may wash out viral particles. The time it takes for the virus to reach the brain depends on the amount of virus there is in addition to how close the wound is to the head. If the animal is dead, the head of the biting animal is submitted to the health department for fluorescent antibody testing for the virus. This process only takes a matter of hours so that any bite victims can know right away if they will require rabies treatment. If the biting animal is living, its vaccination status should be confirmed as soon as possible and it will need to be confined. The bite wound should be reported to the health department as soon as possible. Hyperimmune (antibody rich) serum is flushed into the wound in hope of inactivating the virus before it penetrates to the nerves. The patient receives a vaccination on a regular schedule for about a month. In this way, when the virus comes out in secretions, a strong immune response is waiting to put down the infection.

For complete details, the CDC has information on post-exposure rabies.

I hope this information helps all of the pet owners understand a little bit more about how rabies is transmitted and how to protect themselves and their pets. For more information about the Maryland state laws regarding rabies please check out the website mda.maryland.gov.

Deborah S. Deans DVM

Bennett Creek Animal Hospital