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Just Do It! Rabies Vaccination

By Kim Everson, DVM
My veterinary clinic received a call from a frustrated dog owner late Friday afternoon. Her dog was coughing and refused to eat after spending a mandatory ten days in a local shelter under rabies quarantine after biting someone. Her bill for quarantining her dog was over $200. On top of that, now her dog was very sick and faced additional costs for diagnostics and treatment. All this could have been avoided with a comparatively inexpensive examination and rabies vaccination!
Rabies is a disease not to be trifled with. Because rabies disease poses a significant threat to human health, public officials take bite cases involving dogs and cats as well as wild animals very seriously. Wisconsin law requires pet dogs, cats and ferrets that have bitten a person to be quarantined for ten days and examined by a veterinarian three times during this period to monitor for signs of rabies. Although rabies virus is typically transmitted through bite wounds, it is also rarely spread through contamination of open wounds, abrasions, mucous membranes, or scratches with saliva or other potentially infectious material (neural tissue, cerebrospinal fluid, salivary gland tissue). This means that even if a mere cat scratch results in medical intervention for the person scratched, the injury may need to be reported to the authorities with orders to quarantine.
Here’s the catch. If the pet is current on its rabies vaccination, the quarantine can occur in the owner’s home. If the pet’s rabies vaccination has lapsed the quarantine must be in an approved facility such as a veterinary clinic or shelter at the owner’s expense. And either way the pet needs to be examined three times by a veterinarian.
Dog showing signs of rabies during quarantine
Animals that develop neurological signs during the quarantine period are humanely euthanized and their brains are submitted to the state diagnostic laboratory for testing. If the animal’s brain tests positive for rabies the injured person needs to undergo rabies prophylaxis, the series of injections to prevent development of rabies disease. In the past, these injections were administered into the person’s abdomen. Nowadays, the injections are given in the arm, not much different from getting a tetanus or flu shot!
Did you know?
  • Rabies occurs in more than 150 countries and territories. Rabies is found on every continent on Earth except Antarctica!
  • Worldwide,more than 55,000 people die of rabies every year. Nearly half of those bitten by rabid animals are children!
  • Dogs are the source of 99% of human rabies deaths.
  • In the United States, raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes are common wildlife carriers of rabies. Among domestic animals (besides dogs, cats and ferrets), cattle, horses, swine and other livestock can also be affected by rabies virus.
  • Not all rabid animals show the classic foaming-at-the-mouth “mad,” or furious form of rabies. Some rabid animals display the paralytic or “dumb” form of rabies, and may appear to be choking on something. Human exposure in these cases often occurs when a well-meaning person reaches into the animal’s mouth to clear the obstruction!
  • Wound cleansing and immunization within a few hours after contact with a suspect rabid animal can prevent the onset of rabies and death.
  • Every year, more than 15 million people worldwide receive post-exposure preventive injections to avert the disease – this is estimated to prevent 327,000 rabies deaths annually.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) provides a good overview on rabies disease. Also, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has created an entertaining and enlightening video on rabies which is appropriate for educating young people about the dangers of rabies. 
Just do it! sums up my feelings on rabies prevention. Keep all pets — even indoor cats — current on their rabies vaccination. Educate yourself and the children you love about rabies disease prevention. In the case of injury from an animal — especially wildlife or stranger — contact the local authorities (police, animal control, physicians, veterinarians) for assistance in determining whether quarantining, testing or prophylaxis is necessary. 

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