Washington State recently passed a law requiring rabies vaccinations in all dogs, cats, and ferrets. This may not represent a big change in your household if you have kept your dog or cat current on their recommended vaccines, but many of you may be wondering why this is necessary for your animals.
The issue of rabies goes far beyond individual cats and dogs. Because rabies is a fatal disease that can affect any mammal- including humans- rabies vaccinations are a critical component of public health.
Rabies is a deadly virus that attacks the nervous system and is spread via bite wounds. The virus enters the bite wound through the saliva of the infected animal and begins to travel up the nerve fibers towards the brain. Depending on where a bite occurred, it may take a long time to reach the brain so rabies can lie seemingly dormant for weeks to months as it travels. The virus reaches the salivary glands before any neurologic signs may be present, meaning that an animal may be contagious well before it starts to look like the classically rabid animal. Ultimately, the virus affects the brain and can cause the animal to become depressed and vacant, to show wild behavior changes and aggression, or to have other neurologic changes such as seizures, tremors, head tilts, drooling, or difficulty swallowing. Rabies is 100% fatal.
The main rabies carriers in Washington are bats, not raccoons or skunks as is seen in other parts of the country. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for bats to enter homes through attics, windows, or chimneys. This means that even indoor animals remain at risk for exposure. In fact, because they are less likely to be brought to the vet for vaccinations, cats are becoming the most commonly infected domestic animal.
The good news is that modern vaccines have very low rates of adverse reactions, making this shot a low risk procedure. The vaccine is also highly effective at preventing infection with the rabies virus. Unlike in humans, there is no "post-exposure" vaccination approved for animals, so if your unvaccinated animal has potentially been exposed, they may face a 6 month long quarantine or even euthanasia for rabies testing if a human has been bitten. Unless your pet has had a severe reaction to a rabies vaccine in the past, the benefits in preventing this deadly disease far outweigh the risks.
Please visit the following websites if you are interested in more information on rabies in humans and animals:
World Rabies Day: www.worldrabiesday.org
Center for Disease Control Rabies Website: www.cdc.gov/rabies
World Health Organization Rabies Website: www.who.int/rabies/en