AMY JO MILLER
Summertime is just around the corner, and we humans aren’t the only ones who appreciate the warmer temperatures. More animals are out and about this time of year, making precautions against rabies all that more important.
Rabies is a serious illness caused by a virus that attacks the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system). All warm-blooded animals, including wild animals, dogs, cats and humans, are susceptible to it. The disease usually spreads through saliva, for example, when an infected animal bites or scratches another animal or human. Even though rabies is rare in the United States (only a few cases are reported each year), thousands of people throughout the world still die from rabies each year. Most of these deaths are in developing countries, where wild animals are not well controlled and rabies vaccine is not available.
In the United States, rabies has drastically changed over the past 100 years. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 90% of all animal cases reported annually now occur in wildlife; before 1960, the majority occurred in domestic animals.
Because of the potentially serious human health implications, rabies vaccination of dogs is required by law in virtually all states, and many states also require cats to be vaccinated. Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent the disease in animals and, in doing so, to safeguard human health. In addition, it is recommended that you minimize your pets’ exposure to animals that may transmit the infection.
Your veterinarian can advise you of the rabies vaccination schedule required for your state or county. Some require an initial vaccination at 12 to 16 weeks of age, a second vaccine at one year of age, and subsequent vaccinations every three years. Others require annual revaccination, and still others allow vaccination every two years.
There is no way to know whether an animal is rabid just by looking at it. Only in the later stages of the disease do animals show the “classic” signs of rabies; in fact, an animal could have the disease without showing any rabies signs. In those that do, however, signs include unusual agitation or aggression, or the animal may appear to be “drunk” or unable to walk. Seizures and drooling may also occur. Drooling results from paralyzation of the throat muscles, preventing swallowing.
With kids out of school for the summer and more time spent outdoors, families should educate themselves about rabies and caution their children about the possibility of exposure. Follow this advice from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and CDC:
- Enjoy wildlife from a distance. More than 90% of animal rabies cases have been found in wild animals, including bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes. Bites from bats are the main cause of rabies in humans in the United States.
- Call your local animal control agency to remove any stray animals from your neighborhood. They may be unvaccinated and could be infected by the disease.
- Keep rabies vaccinations up to date for all cats, dogs and ferrets. Vaccinations help to prevent pets from getting rabies from wild animals and then transmitting it to people. Even indoor pets should have rabies vaccinations. Many communities sponsor low-cost rabies vaccination clinics for pets. Check with your veterinarian or local animal control agency.
- Supervise your pets so they do not come in contact with wild animals. If your pet is bitten by a wild animal, seek veterinary assistance immediately, even if the pet has been vaccinated against rabies.
- Keep lids on garbage cans, and don’t leave pet food outside overnight.
- Spay or neuter your pets to help reduce the number of unwanted pets that may not be properly cared for or regularly vaccinated.
The number of rabies-related human deaths in the United States has declined from more than 100 annually at the turn of the 19th century to one or two per year in the 1990s. Modern-day prevention has proven nearly 100% successful. In the United States, human fatalities associated with rabies occur in people who fail to seek medical assistance, usually because they are unaware of their exposure.Once clinical signs appear, rabies is generally fatal. If you do get bitten, scratched or touched by any wild mammal, or even just find a bat in your home, you should immediately:
- Clean any contact areas thoroughly with soap and water. Washing vigorously right away helps to get rid of the rabies virus before it has a chance to enter the body. Careful wound care alone may decrease the likelihood of rabies by up to 90%. Cleaning the site also kills other germs that may cause infection.
- Seek medical advice immediately. You may need antibiotics, a tetanus shot, rabies immunoglobulin (protective antibodies obtained from people who have already been immunized against the disease) or rabies vaccine.
- Check with your local police department or animal control center to alert the authorities about the possibility of a rabid wild animal in the area.
By no means is this article intended to scare you into a bubble this summer; rather, it is meant to provide you with information about prevention and precaution. The Office’s Steve Carell puts it into perspective.
This article originally appeared in PetsMatter May / June 2011, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2011 AAHA. Find out more.