Rabies: The Preventable Killer
As World Rabies Day approaches, it’s fitting to take a few moments to consider this dreadful disease and the steps being taken to eradicate it. Though human rabies cases in the United States have become rare, it’s still a relevant concern for us, for wildlife and for our domestic animals. Worldwide, rabies is a very significant public health issue.
World Rabies Day is observed on September 28th for the purpose of raising awareness about rabies prevention, and to celebrate the progress that has been made towards controlling and eventually eliminating the disease. The particular day was chosen in honor of Louis Pasteur, the French scientist who developed the first rabies vaccine, and whose death occurred on this date.
Is rabies really still a big deal? How common is it, actually?
While cases in the United States have been significantly decreased by stringent vaccination protocols, the disease kills more than 59,000 annually around the world. The majority of the cases (95%) occur in Africa and Asia, and about 40% of cases are children. Those most at risk are children in poor, rural communities, where there is inadequate prevention. Worldwide, 99% of human cases are a result of dog bites.
Even though are rates are much lower in the United States, it’s still imperative to be educated about and take steps to protect against rabies, as it is so dangerous. Once signs appear, the disease is almost always fatal.
The good news is that the disease is 100% vaccine preventable, which is why there is such a strong emphasis on using the vaccine to prevent transmission and save lives.
What exactly is Rabies?
Rabies is a zoonotic disease, which means that it can be transmitted between people and animals. It is caused by a virus, and this virus is found in the saliva of an affected animal. Transmission usually occurs through a bite, though it could also occur when saliva comes in contact with the eyes or an open cut or wound. The virus cannot travel through intact skin. If it’s not treated quickly, the virus attacks the brain, causing neurologic signs and then death. There are two ways that rabies may present: the furious form and the paralytic form. In humans, about 80% of the cases are furious form.
Which animals get rabies?
Mammals, including people, are at risk for acquiring rabies. Worldwide, dogs are the biggest culprit. In the US, 95% of documented cases occur in wildlife (most often raccoons, skunks, foxes, bats, and groundhogs). Domestic pets and livestock can also be infected. Although it is technically possible for small rodents like mice, rats, squirrels, and chipmunks to acquire rabies, they are very rarely affected. The main hosts are wild carnivores and bats.
What kinds of signs would an affected animal show?
At first, an infected animal may seem sick, but may not immediately make you suspicious of rabies. The animal may be lethargic, have a fever, vomit, or be reluctant to eat. Over a period of days, the animal will develop neurologic signs. Some examples of these signs include difficulty walking, difficulty swallowing, weakness, difficulty breathing, seizures, hypersalivation, paralysis, or self mutilation. Some (but not all) rabid animals can act vicious and aggressive. Others may even appear normal. This is one of the many reasons why humans should stay away from stray or wild animals, particularly those who appear sick.
Is rabies really a concern here in NJ?
Yes. In 2017, there were 208 documented animal cases of rabies in New Jersey. The majority of these cases were in wildlife. The reservoir animal for rabies in NJ is the raccoon. So far in 2018 (January 1 to June 3), there have been 81 documented cases. Since 1989, 90% of the documented domestic animal cases were cats. It’s also important to remember that we only have statistics on the cases that are recognized and officially diagnosed.
Human rabies fatalities are rare in NJ, partially because an exposed individual can be treated by a series of injections. Human fatalities occur when an exposed individual does not seek medical care (often because they do not realize they were exposed).
NJ Rabies Laws
In New Jersey, both dogs and cats are legally required to have an up-to-date rabies vaccine. This applies even if the animal is primarily or solely an indoor pet. As cats make up the large majority of domestic animal cases in NJ, it is particularly important that they be kept up-to-date on their rabies vaccines.
Dependant upon the age, species, and vaccine history of your pet, vaccines may be used that provide protection for 1 or 3 years at a time. Your veterinarian can recommend the vaccine protocol that is the best fit for your pet. Dogs and cats should receive their first rabies vaccine between 12 and 16 weeks of age. A puppy or kitten older than 16 weeks who is unvaccinated is considered noncompliant.
There are also very specific laws regarding steps to take if a pet bites a person, bites another animal, is bitten by another animal, or has a bite wound of unknown origin. Particularly if one of the animals involved is not up-to-date on their rabies vaccine or has an unknown rabies vaccine status, the protocol may involve boostering the vaccine, quarantining the animal, or even having the animal tested post-mortem.
What should I do if an animal bites my pet?
Immediately bring your animal to the veterinarian, particularly if the biting animal was not up-to-date on the rabies vaccine or has an unknown vaccine history. Your veterinarian will be able to advise you regarding specific next steps, depending on your pet’s vaccination status and clinical presentation.
What should I do if my animal bites a person?
First, urge the victim to seek immediate medical care. Then, verify if your pet is up-to-date on vaccines. Report the bite and any illness or unusual behavior to your local health department and vet.
Monitor your pet carefully for any changes or unusual behavior. Your veterinarian will inform you of observation requirements. If your pet is overdue for the rabies vaccine, he or she will require a booster after the observation period.
What should I do if an animal bites me?
Immediately use soap and water to clean the bite wound, and seek medical care right away. Your physician will advise you on whether or not rabies treatment is necessary. Also report the bite to the local health department. If the biting animal is wildlife, attempt to safely contain the animal and contact the police or animal control. If the biting animal was a pet, make sure to get the owner’s contact information and details regarding the biting pet’s vaccination status.
What can I do to protect my pet, myself, and others from rabies?
Keep your dogs, cats, and ferrets up-to-date on the rabies vaccine. If you notice any stray animals, call animal control. If you notice any wild or stray animals acting unusual, call animal control. Do not interact with wild animals. Do not attempt to interact with stray animals.
Although rabies is a terrible and devastating disease, the good news is that it can be prevented with a simple vaccine. So, to protect yourself, your animals, and others, make wise decisions about interacting with wildlife and keep your pets up-to-date! If you have any questions about rabies, vaccination, or specific recommendations for your pet, please speak with your veterinarian.
- Administration of Rabies Vaccination State Laws. American Veterinary Medical Association. .https://www.avma.org/Advocacy/StateAndLocal/Pages/rabies-vaccination.aspx. Accessed 15 August 2018.
- Animal Rabies Statistics. State of NJ Department of Health. https://www.nj.gov/health/cd/statistics/rabies-stats/ Accessed 15 August 2018.
- Rabies. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/index.html Accessed 15 August 2018.
- Rabies Frequently Asked Questions. State of NJ Department of Health. https://www.nj.gov/health/cd/documents/faq/Rabies-New%20FAQ%20logo_Jan2018.pdf Accessed 15 August 2018.
- Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2015. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. May 15, 2017, Vol. 250, No. 10, Pages 1117-1130 https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.250.10.1117 Accessed 15 August 2018.
- World Rabies Day. World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/rabies/WRD_landing_page/en/ Accessed 15 August 2018.