By Dena Fitzgerald, program manager, shelter support
When you think of rabies, what comes to mind? Bats? Feral dogs in third-world countries? Fictional tales of Cujo and Old Yeller? If you’re not thinking about the risk to your own pets, then World Rabies Day on September 28 is the ideal time to start, and here’s why: Rabies cases in domestic animals are on the rise in many U.S. states.
A viral infection that affects the central nervous system, rabies is found in every state in our nation except Hawaii. The most common rabies carriers are raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes, but all mammals are susceptible to infection, including both you and your pets. Rabies is transmitted by the contact of an open wound (most commonly a bite wound) with the saliva of an infected animal.
There is no cure for rabies, and it is nearly 100 percent fatal. Worldwide, more than 55,000 people die of rabies each year, according to the Alliance for Rabies Control. In the United States, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that human deaths from rabies average only two per year, thanks to the effectiveness of our domestic-animal vaccination program and the accessibility of human rabies vaccine when an exposure does occur. Confirmed rabies cases in wildlife average around 3,000 per year in the U.S., but it is the number of rabies cases occurring in domestic animals that may surprise many people.
In 2008, 294 cats, 75 dogs and 59 cows died from rabies in this country. Pennsylvania had the highest incidence of rabies in domestic animals, with 60 reported cases in 2008. Virginia was a close second with 48 reported cases. In general, rabies is most prevalent along the East Coast from Florida to Maine and in southern Arizona along the Mexican border. However, some other states have seen a sharp rise in rabies cases in recent years. In Colorado, confirmed cases in wildlife have risen more than 50 percent since 2006, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Colorado has also seen three cases of rabies in horses in the past two years, the first equine rabies cases in that state in more than 30 years.
Fortunately, rabies in domestic animals is easily preventable through appropriate vaccination — but unfortunately, some pet owners are remiss in keeping this important vaccine up to date. Failing to keep your pet current on his rabies vaccination not only puts him at risk for contracting this deadly disease, but also puts you and your family at risk of exposure.
There is also another potentially serious consequence for your pet — one that is much more likely to occur than actually contracting rabies. I am talking about mandatory rabies quarantines in accordance with individual state rabies laws. Most states take the threat of rabies very seriously and have statutes mandating rabies vaccinations for both dogs and cats. Most states also mandate a rabies quarantine period when a pet bites either a person or another animal, when a pet is bitten by another known animal, or when a pet receives a suspected bite wound from an unknown animal.
If your pet has been vaccinated, some of these scenarios do not even require a quarantine period, and those that do usually require only a brief, 10-day quarantine. In the case of an unvaccinated pet, the required quarantine is often six months in an animal control facility at the owner’s expense. If the owner cannot comply with or afford to pay for this six-month quarantine, the only alternative is mandatory euthanasia.
Sadly, I have seen dozens of animals euthanized under these circumstances. I spent most of my career working in Pennsylvania and Maryland, both of which have very strict rabies statutes. It is truly heartbreaking to see a beloved family pet put to death for lack of a simple and inexpensive vaccination. It is nearly as heartbreaking to see a pet spend six months in a quarantine cage. While these rabies laws may sound extreme, remember they are in place to protect you and your family from this deadly disease.