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Sunday (Sept. 28) is World Rabies Day, a global effort to raise
awareness in support of animal and human rabies prevention. This
day was set aside to educate people around the globe about the
impact of rabies, how it can be prevented and how to eliminate the
sources that contribute to the death of 55,000 humans from rabies
In support of this effort, Dr. Leon Russell, a professor at the
Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine &
Biomedical Sciences, shares some background on rabies and ways to
prevent your pets and yourself from infection.
"Rabies in the USA is most common in the wildlife population and
some of the more common hosts include skunks, raccoons, foxes and
bats," says Russell. "In other parts of the world however,
especially in developing countries, dogs are the major host for
rabies because of inadequate vaccination programs to protect
There are different variants of rabies virus that are maintained
by different wildlife hosts, and they tend to be located in
different parts of the country. While raccoons are the major hosts
in the Atlantic coast states, skunks dominate in the Midwestern
states, while rabid bats are found throughout the U.S.
"All of these wildlife hosts can and do transmit rabies to
domestic animals, especially dogs, cats and cattle," notes Russell.
"That is why it is so important to have your pets currently
vaccinated, because dogs and cats can transmit rabies from wildlife
to people if the pets are not protected."
Because of the risk of infection and transmission, there are
USDA licensed vaccines available to protect horses, dogs, cats,
cattle, sheep and ferrets. Russell also notes that "in the past 15
years, there has been more rabies in cats than dogs because fewer
pet owners have their cats vaccinated."
Keeping your pets away from wildlife exposure year-round is also
important. Rabies in wildlife does tend to follow seasonal peaks,
but it still occurs throughout the year. For example, raccoon
rabies tends to peak in early spring, skunk rabies is more frequent
late spring and early summer and bat rabies peaks in late
"These seasonal trends are most likely related to the population
density and mating season in terrestrial animals, and the
'swarming' of bats related to their seasonal migration," states
If you do see an animal that may be rabid, there are some
behaviors you can observe. There are three stages of clinical
rabies. In the first stage animals may wander and change their
"For example, in the first stage it not uncommon for shy dogs to
become very friendly and wild animals may lose their fear of
humans. Dogs may also ingest strange things, like rocks," says
Russell. "In the second stage, animals will attack just about
anything, sometimes breaking their teeth in biting."
The third stage of rabies is characterized by partial paralysis,
usually involving the muscles of the jaw, so the animals may have a
dropped jaw along with a glazed look in their eyes.
Russell adds that, "the animals may also have difficulty in
walking, which sometimes gives skunks a wobbling gait or prevents
cats from climbing trees. Unfortunately, regardless of the clinical
signs, the rabid animal will die in a few days or even a few
If you see these signs in your animal, contact your veterinarian
immediately. If it is not your animal, you can contact the local
animal control agency or the local health department.
The good news, Russell explains, is that post-exposure treatment
is very effective and safe in people. However, it must be prompt.
The treatment starts with prompt first aid, which includes flushing
the bite wounds out with liquid soap or detergent or just running
"People should contact their physicians as soon as possible.
Post-exposure treatment is safe, but expensive, and consists of a
rabies injection, plus a series of rabies five vaccine injections
over the next four weeks. However, once clinical signs begin, there
is currently no effective treatment for rabies," notes Russell.
"There is also a procedure for handling dogs and cats exposed to
rabid animals so you should promptly consult your veterinarian
about any potentially exposed pets."
He adds that the key is to remember is that prevention is the
only way to keep rabies from spreading. Making sure that your
animals' vaccinations are current and keeping them away from
wildlife can save them and you from the deadly disease.
Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine
& Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University.
Stories can be viewed on the Web at http://tamunews.tamu.edu/.
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Angela G. Clendenin
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