Did you see Old Yeller? If not, go watch it stat. I saw it when I was about eight, and I think it changed my life for three reasons. One, it is partially responsible for me becoming a veterinarian. Two, it solidified my love of Labradors. Three, it made me very afraid of Rabies. Why the movie reference? Well, I had grandiose plans of making a blog post in honor of World Rabies Day. However, World Rabies Day is September 28th, so I missed my deadline by a day. My apologies, but we are still going to do an overview of the worst, most fatal viral disease, rabies.
Rabies is a viral disease (a Rhabdovirus to be exact – thanks Dr. Gyimah!) that is almost always fatal in animals and humans. It is secreted in salvia and typically transmitted from a bite by an infected animal. Rabies affects only mammals, mainly skunks, raccoons, bats foxes and coyotes. In household animals, cats are most commonly affected and have been since 1988. This is partly due to decreased compliance with rabies vaccines in cats (note: vaccinate your cat!). It also affects dogs, cattle, horses and other livestock.
Once an animal is infected with rabies, the virus travels along nerves from the wound site to the brain. It can take weeks or months for the virus to travel to the brain, depending on where the infection occurred. From there, the clinical signs begin. The signs are variable, but include your Hollywood perception of foamy mouth, aggression, staggering, etc. This is known as the furious form of rabies and is often referred to as “mad-dog syndrome.” There can also be fearfulness, seizures, difficulty swallowing (paralytic form), depression, light sensitivity or just acting in an unusual manner. Once clinical signs appear, the disease is nearly always fatal.
Diagnosis of rabies is an unpleasant topic. A definitive diagnosis is usually required if rabies is suspected. A rabies test involves humane euthanasia and decapitation. The head is then sent to a qualified laboratory for immunofluorescense microscopy.
Rabies control is the main mechanism of disease prevention. Annual vaccinations are a MUST for all dogs and cats. These days, many rabies vaccines are good for 3 years, with a new rabies tag being issued at each annual visit. As a bonus, rabies tag numbers can be used to help locate a pet’s home if they get lost. Also important is to limit your pet’s exposure risk. Keep your pet in a contained environment, such as inside or in a fenced yard. Avoid wild animals and never attempt to keep them as pets.
If another pet or a wild animal bites your dog, please give us (or any veterinarian) a call immediately. Even if the pet is current on vaccines, there are many risks associated with puncture wounds from animal bites. An observation period may be needed, depending on the situation. Unfortunately, if your pet is not current on vaccines and is exposed to a rabid animal, the only options are euthanasia or a strict isolation for 6 months. I cannot express enough how important it is to keep your pet current on their rabies vaccines.
How does this affect the pet owners? If an animal ever bites you, wash the wound immediately and see a doctor. If the animal is a pet, get information on the vaccination status and report the incident to the local health department. These cases are evaluated based on risk assessment, which may be too complicated to discuss in a brief blog post.
So, the moral of this story and the classic film Old Yeller? Vaccinate your pets EVERY YEAR! Questions? Let me know!