September 28th is World Rabies Day, created to raise awareness of human and animal rabies and its impact worldwide. In the United States, we are fortunate that only 1-2 human deaths occur each year due to rabies. However, worldwide, rabies kills over 55,000 people per year, many of them children under the age of 14. While our rates of infection are much lower here in the US, largely due to extensive vaccination of pets against rabies, it is important to recognize that rabies is still considered endemic in this country and to understand how to protect yourself and your pets.
Rabies is a type of virus called a Lyssavirus which affects the central nervous system. Warm blooded mammals, including humans, are susceptible to this virus. The disease is most often contracted via a bite from an infected animal who is shedding the virus in their saliva, although contact with saliva on mucous membranes and wounds have also been implicated. In the United States, the majority of rabies cases are reported in wildlife, rather than in domesticated animals such as dogs or cats. While any mammal can be infected, raccoons, skunks, bats, foxes, and coyotes are considered the major hosts for maintaining the disease in this country.
When an animal or person is exposed to rabies, the virus travels along nerves from the site of infection until it reaches the brain, at first causing flu-like symptoms, but quickly progressing to signs of cerebral dysfunction such as anxiety, hallucinations, or difficulty swallowing, and, ultimately, death. In humans, the time from exposure until signs appear can vary from a week to years, but most often occurs in 1-3 months. Once signs of rabies infection emerge in a patient, the virus is almost invariably fatal; however, with prompt and proper treatment after a bite or other exposure to the virus, the disease is preventable.
Protecting yourself, your family, and your pets from exposure to rabies is the best prevention. The mainstay of prevention of human exposure to rabies is through vaccination of pets. According to the Louisiana Department of Health, rabies was reported in two cats and four dogs from 2007 to 2016. This may not seem like much, but it is important to remember that the rabies virus is present in Louisiana, and your pet can be affected if it is exposed and not properly vaccinated against the disease. Because humans live in close contact with pets, an infected pet greatly increases the risk of human exposure. Therefore, it is very important to keep your pets up to date on their rabies vaccinations. In Louisiana, the rabies vaccination should be given to pets such as dogs, cats, and ferrets once they reach 12 weeks of age. This initial vaccination should be followed by another rabies vaccination one year later. Thereafter, rabies vaccination is either given annually or every three years depending on parish law.
Another way to avoid exposure to the rabies virus is to limit contact with wildlife and animals that are unknown to you. Keeping pets indoors and supervised will limit their exposure. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends not approaching or feeding wildlife, even if it appears to be friendly, and reporting animals that act strangely or seem ill to the animal control service in your area. They recommend reporting animals who have difficulty walking or swallowing, are salivating or drooling heavily, or whose behavior appears inconsistent, such as a wild animal seeming tame or friendly, or bats being active in the daytime.
If your pet has been exposed to a wild animal suspected to have rabies, you should immediately consult your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will likely re-vaccinate your pet immediately. If the suspected animal can be found, it will be tested for rabies. If the animal suspected to have rabies cannot be found, your pet will likely have to be quarantined to make sure that they have not contracted rabies. The length of the quarantine will depend on your pet’s vaccination history.
If you are bitten by any type of animal, the wound should be washed thoroughly with soap and water as soon as possible. Even this simple step can greatly aid in prevention of infection with rabies. You should see your doctor immediately for treatment of the wound. Depending on the circumstances of the bite and the type of animal, your doctor may initiate treatment designed to prevent the development of rabies, called post-exposure prophylaxis. It is important to realize that with bats, it is possible for the victim to be unaware of a bite, particularly if the victim is a child or was asleep, for example. If a bat is found in your home, unless you can be absolutely certain that no contact with the bat has occurred, post-exposure treatment may be considered by your doctor and the bat should be submitted for testing, if possible.
If your pet is due for its rabies vaccination, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to make sure that your pet is protected from this disease. You can also schedule an appointment at the Louisiana SPCA Community Clinic to receive the vaccination. For more information about rabies and the global impact of this fatal disease, please visit the website for the Global Alliance for Rabies Control or that of the World Health Organization.