Rabid Dog

World Rabies Day is the one day of the year designated to raising awareness about one of the world’s older, yet more serious, animal diseases, which continues to threaten humans.

One only has to read the eloquently written introduction to Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy’s book, Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus (Viking, 2012), to be reminded of the impact the rabies virus has had on wildlife, domestic animals and humans for thousands of years — and still has today.

Three facts highlight the significance of rabies exposure:

  1. All mammals can be infected with rabies.
  2. Most infected animals can transmit the rabies virus to other animals — including pets and people.
  3. With rare exception, infection is fatal.

Consider the Numbers

Currently, the World Health Organization estimates that between 50,000 and 60,000 human fatalities from rabies occur annually. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • More than 90 percent of rabies exposure around the globe is through rabid dogs.
  • Exposure to rabid dogs is the cause of more than 99 percent of human deaths from rabies worldwide.

In North America today, humans are only rarely diagnosed with rabies. However, unvaccinated dogs and cats — and even ferrets — do pose a risk for humans. In the United States and Canada, routine vaccination of pets plays a critical public health role in reducing human risk for exposure to the rabies virus.

  • In the last decade in the United States, only two to three human infections have been confirmed each year. Most of those infections were acquired outside the United States or resulted from exposure to bats.
  • However, in Africa, India and several locations in Asia, where dogs are rarely vaccinated against rabies, the prevalence of the disease in animals and risk for human exposure through contact with dogs continue to be the primary source of infection.

Exposure to the rabies virus, whether known or suspected, carries a significant financial cost, particularly when an unvaccinated pet is exposed to a rabid (or possibly rabid) animal then has direct contact with humans. It is estimated that, in the United States alone, 40,000 people undergo treatment for rabies exposure each year — at a potential cost of thousands of dollars per person.

A Reality Check

Rabies vaccination laws in the United States are largely credited with reducing the number of dogs infected with rabies during the 1940s and ’50s, a time when the risk of dog-to-human transmission was extremely high. In 1950 alone, 4,979 dogs were confirmed to be infected with rabies in the United States. By contrast, in 2012, rabies was confirmed in the United States in only 84 dogs.

However, the risk for human exposure to rabies is not limited to dogs. Looking at rabies statistics for 2012, 257 cats in the United States were confirmed to have rabies. In fact, in the United States, confirmed cases of rabies in cats have far exceeded the number of cases in dogs every year since 1986. Even though the number of cases is low, the risk is still real and significant.

Immunization Requirements

In most states, rabies vaccination of pet dogs, cats and even ferrets is required by law. In Canada, the only province requiring rabies vaccination of pets is Ontario. However, the fact that an individual state (or province) has a law requiring pets to be vaccinated is no guarantee that pets will actually receive their shots.

In fact, owner compliance with rabies vaccination requirements for pet dogs and cats is modest at best. It has been estimated that rabies vaccination compliance is less than 30 percent, even among dogs living in areas where the risk of a pet having contact with infected wildlife is high. Yet, the actual number of cats receiving required rabies vaccinations is significantly less than for dogs.

What makes these numbers especially striking is the fact that, realistically, many more dogs and cats are infected with rabies each year than are reflected in annual statistics. It’s simply not possible to capture and confirm all of the cases that occur. That’s why it is so important that all pets be vaccinated against rabies.

Rabies vaccination requirements vary from state to state. And, in some states, individual municipalities may impose vaccination laws that are stricter than those stipulated by the state.

In states and municipalities (cities or counties) where rabies vaccination is required, it is the pet owner’s responsibility to comply with rabies laws and ensure a pet is vaccinated at the appropriate age and interval, and it is the veterinarian’s responsibility to ensure that rabies vaccines are administered in accordance with laws or ordinances.

National vaccination guidelines for dogs and cats strongly recommend that all cats and all dogs be immunized against rabies, even in cities/states that do not stipulate a vaccination requirement.

Preventing Exposure

It is true that the risk that you or someone in your family will be exposed to rabies is small, but it can happen, and when it does, the consequences can be serious.

Ensuring that pets are regularly vaccinated is not an option: It’s a fundamental responsibility if you are providing for the care of a dog or cat (or ferret). But preventing infection is not just about vaccination. There are some important precautions that can significantly reduce an individual pet’s risk of being exposed to rabies:

  • If your dog or cat spends time outside, don’t leave pet food outdoors for extended periods, especially overnight. Doing so attracts the kinds of wild animals who carry rabies and can transmit the virus to pets (and people).
  • Supervise pets while they are outdoors. Strictly avoid contact with stray dogs and cats and especially with wildlife (such as raccoons, foxes, and bats).
  • Notify animal control if a stray dog or cat frequents the area around your home.

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