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 worldwide.
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 them.”
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 summer.
“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 Russell.
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 usual behavior.
“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 hours.”
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 water.
“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.
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