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Without rabies, there might be no "Twilight" or "Walking Dead." The justifiable fear of rabies is so much a part of our culture that it’s probably what’s behind our endless fascination with werewolves (big scary dogs), vampires (bats are major rabies carriers) and zombies (the diseased undead). “Vampirism is a dark, animal undercurrent that haunts the human — even the most refined among us, and even in our closet relationships,” authors Wasik and Murphy note. It’s no surprise that many modern-day horror stories are set in steamy places in the American South: Widespread poverty meant that relatively few dogs were vaccinated in the South, which put them at higher risk for contracting rabies. Until the middle of the last century, when public health initiatives changed things, a rabid dog wasn’t at all unusual in the Southern states, nor was the possibility of dying of rabies.
Until vaccines, dogs were not man’s best friend. Before vaccination proved a successful alternative, mass slaughter was the primary approach to eradicating rabies, and the status of dogs was always rather shaky. In England, fear of rabies led to mobs of people periodically beating dogs to the death in the streets. Dogs in France were slaughtered too: In 1879, 9,479 dogs were killed in Paris alone. The death of a dog infected with rabies turns up frequently in literature, in stories such as Old Yeller and To Kill a Mockingbird, where the shooting of a rabid dog is an important plot point. These days of course, widespread vaccination has lowered the risk of rabies in dogs. Cats are more likely to be rabid, and wild animals are an even bigger threat.
We love to scare ourselves, with books and movies and scary campfire tales of things that go bump in the night. But unlike so many urban legends, rabies is really worth fearing. Other vaccine protocols designed to prevent disease in your dog and cat may be open for discussion, and indeed, as a veterinarian, I hope you do have that discussion. But rabies? The law is in place to protect you as much as your animals, and it is not a vaccine you should question or avoid.
Let’s keep rabies a part of our own history, and work to make it something we used to have to fear. We have enough to think about when it comes to zoonotic disease: Let's not worry about something we know how to prevent.
Read more Vetstreet articles about dog vaccinations and cat vaccinations.
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