Rabies is a viral infection of mammals, including humans, that is fatal unless the victim is vaccinated before or immediately after infection. The virus is transmitted through contact with infected saliva, excretions and body tissues, which is why it is associated with bites. The law requires that pets, even indoor-only ones, be vaccinated against rabies. Even with the best intentions, pet owners sometimes find that their indoor dog, cat, ferret or whatever has escaped outdoors, or that a rabid racoon or bat has invaded the home. If you pet is overdue for its rabies vaccination booster and is exposed to a rabid animal, the pet will have to go into a strict six-month quarantine. Unvaccinated pets may be euthanized, if there is human exposure. In other words, the risks associated with contracting rabies absolutely compels all owners of mammalian pets to ensure the pets receive proper rabies vaccinations.
Not only is rabies fatal to an unvaccinated mammal, it can be spread by infected animals and to people, which is why unvaccinated, infected animals must be put to sleep. Carnivorous & omnivorous mammals are the most likely to be infected, including dogs, cats, ferrets, racoons, skunks, woodchucks, groundhogs, bears and bats. Small mammals such as hamsters, squirrels, mice, rats, guinea pigs, chipmunks, gerbils, hares and rabbits are virtually free of rabies and are not known to infect humans in the U.S. However, if one of these animals becomes very sick or behaves strangely and rabies is widespread where you live, it’s possible the animal has become infected.
Areas with widespread incidents of rabies are tracked by each state, and the Centers for Disease Control publishes an annual rabies surveillance report. The report tracks outbreaks of rabies among wild and domesticated animals. The CDC reports that about 120,000 animals are tested annually for rabies in the U.S., and 6 percent of the tests are positive. The occurrence of the disease varies from less than 1 percent in domestic animals to more than 10 percent in wildlife species.
The diagnostic test for animals suspected of having rabies is the direct fluorescent antibody (DFA) test, which detects the presence of rabies virus antigens in the brain of the euthanized animal. Diagnosis of humans requires several tests. Ideally, an animal that has bitten you or another animal should be tested immediately for rabies. A negative test spares a lot of worry, needless treatment and expense, whereas a positive test requires an immediate medical response, and provides important information about the spread of the diseases.
The suspected animal is euthanized and doctors draw two or more brain samples. Once brain tissue has been extracted and sent to the proper laboratory, test results will be available in about two hours. The whole process takes one to three days in the U.S.
Pets such as dogs, cats and ferrets can be quarantined and observed in response to a bite from an unknown source. This saves the pet’s life if it is found to be uninfected. Human victims of uncaptured animals must undergo a series of rabies post-exposure injections that include both vaccine and passive antibodies. However, if you have been previously vaccinated, you won’t need the passive antibodies. Modern vaccines usually have few side effects.
Your pet dog, cat, or ferret needs to receive rabies vaccine at regular intervals. Your veterinarian will establish the timetable, and it is important that you maintain the schedule. One reason why neutering of animals is recommended is to reduce their desire to wander outdoors to find a mate, which increases their possible exposure to rabies. If you notice racoons or other unwanted wild animals in your neighborhood, contact your local animal control department.
If your pet is bitten, bring it to the vet immediately so that the wound can be cleaned. If your pet’s vaccines are not up to date and the attacking animal hasn’t been identified, the vet will put your pet into quarantine to see if symptoms develop. If you think that you’ve been exposed to rabies, see your medical doctor right away. Once again, it’s always best if the attacking animal can be apprehended and tested/observed. Remember, untreated rabies kills humans and unvaccinated pets, so always keep your pet fully vaccinated.
Dr. Paul has a strong interest in avian and exotic animal medicine and surgery, as well as small animal internal medicine and surgery.
He has provided services for numerous breeders, kennels, aviaries, and mini zoos.