Why vaccinate against rabies?

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What is rabies?

Rabies is a deadly disease caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system. The virus is secreted in saliva and is usually transmitted to people and animals by a bite from an infected animal. Less commonly, rabies can be transmitted when saliva from a rabid animal comes in contact with an open cut on the skin or the eyes, nose, or mouth of a person or animal. Once the outward signs of the disease appear, rabies is nearly always fatal.

What animals can get rabies?

Only mammals can get rabies; birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians do not. Skunks, bats, foxes, raccoons, dogs, cats and some farm animals are most likely to get rabies.  Rabbits, squirrels, rats, mice, and pets like gerbils and hamsters seldom get rabies. In recent years, cats have become the most common domestic animal infected with rabies. This is because many cat owners do not vaccinate their cats before the cats are exposed to rabid wildlife outdoors.

Improved vaccination programs and control of stray animals have been effective in preventing rabies in most pets. Approved rabies vaccines are available for cats, dogs, ferrets, horses, cattle and sheep. Licensed oral vaccines have been used for mass immunization of wildlife.

In North America, especially the east coast, an increasing number of infected raccoons are being seen.  In the Midwest, skunks and bats more commonly carry rabies.

What are the signs of rabies in animals?

Once the rabies virus enters the body, it travels along the nerves to the brain. Dogs, cats, and ferrets with rabies may show a variety of signs, including fearfulness, aggression, excessive drooling, difficulty swallowing, staggering, and seizures. Rabid wild animals may only display unusual behavior; for example, an animal that is usually only seen at night may be seen wandering in the daytime. In addition to those signs seen in dogs and cats, horses, cattle, sheep, and goats with rabies may exhibit depression, self mutilation, or increased sensitivity to light.

How great is the risk of rabies to humans?

Rabies vaccination and animal control programs, along with better treatment for people who have been bitten, have dramatically reduced the number of human cases of rabies in the United States. Most of the relatively few, recent human cases in this country have resulted from exposures to bats. A few rabies cases have resulted from corneal or organ/tissue transplants from an infected donor, but these have been extremely rare. Dogs are still a significant source of rabies in other countries, so travelers should be aware of this risk when traveling outside of the United States.

What can I do to help control rabies?

  • Have your veterinarian vaccinate your dogs, cats, ferrets, and select horses and livestock. Your veterinarian will advise you on the recommended or required frequency of vaccination in your area.
  • Reduce the possibility of exposure to rabies by not letting your pets roam free. Keep cats and ferrets indoors, and supervise dogs when they are outside. Spaying or neutering your pet may decrease roaming tendencies and will prevent them from contributing to the birth of unwanted animals.
  • Don't leave exposed garbage or pet food outside, as it may attract wild or stray animals.
  • Wild animals should never be kept as pets. Not only may this be illegal, but wild animals pose a potential rabies threat to caretakers and to others.
  • Observe all wild animals from a distance. A rabid wild animal may appear tame but don't go near it. Teach children NEVER to handle unfamiliar animals — even if they appear friendly.
  • If you see a wild animal acting strangely, report it to the city or county animal control department.
  • Bat-proof your home and other structures to prevent bats from nesting and having access to people. (See the Center for Disease Control website for more information.

What if my PET HAS BITTEN someone?

  • Urge the victim to see a physician immediately and to follow the physician's recommendations.
  • Check with your veterinarian to determine if your pet's vaccinations are up-to-date.
  • Report the bite to the local health department and animal control authorities. If your pet is a cat, dog or ferret, the officials will confine the animal and watch it closely for ten days. Home confinement may be allowed.
  • Immediately report any illness or unusual behavior by your pet to the local health department and to your veterinarian.
  • Don't let your pet stray and don't give your pet away. The animal must be available for observation by public health authorities or a veterinarian.
  • After the recommended observation period, have your pet vaccinated for rabies if it does not have a current rabies vaccination.

What if my PET HAS BEEN BITTEN?

  • Consult your veterinarian immediately and report the bite to local animal control authorities.
  • Even if your dog, cat or ferret has a current vaccination, it should be revaccinated immediately, kept under the owner's control, and observed for a period as specified by state law or local ordinance (normally 45 days or more). Animals with expired vaccinations will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
  • Dogs, cats and ferrets that have never been vaccinated and are exposed to a rabid animal may need to be euthanatized or placed in strict isolation for six months.
  • Animals other than dogs, cats, and ferrets that are bitten by a rabid or potentially rabid animal may need to be euthanatized immediately.

What if I am bitten?

  • Don't panic, but don't ignore the bite. Wash the wound thoroughly and vigorously with soap and lots of water.
  • Call your physician immediately and explain how you were bitten. Follow the doctor's advice. If necessary, your physician will give you the post exposure treatment recommended by the United States Public Health Service and may also treat you for other possible infections that could result from the bite.
  • If possible, confine or capture the animal under a large box or other container if that can be done safely. Once captured, don't try to pick up the animal. Call the local animal control authorities to collect it. If the animal cannot be captured, try to memorize its appearance (size, color, etc.) and where it went after biting you.
  • If it is a wild animal, only try to capture it if you can do so without getting bitten again. If the animal cannot be contained and must be killed to prevent its escape, do so without damaging the head. The brain will be needed to test for rabies.
  • Report the bite to the local health department. Prompt and appropriate treatment after being bitten and before the disease develops can stop the infection and prevent the disease.

Treatment for Rabies in Humans

If your doctor determines that you likely were exposed to rabies, treatment begins at once. The sooner you begin treatment, the greater your chance of recovery.

If you live in the United States and receive treatment for rabies after an animal bite, treatment — called post-exposure prophylaxis — consists of one dose of rabies immune globulin and five doses of rabies vaccine over a 28-day period. Rabies immune globulin and the first dose of rabies vaccine are administered as soon as possible after you've been exposed and have reported the exposure to your doctor. You're given the immune globulin by injection around the site of the bite, and you receive injections of the vaccine into your upper arm muscle.

Immune globulins are disease-fighting proteins that provide you with temporary antibodies. The rabies vaccine helps your body start producing its own antibodies. Antibody production takes time, but the antibodies produced by your body provide longer lasting protection than do the ones contained in rabies immune globulin.

Because of improved rabies vaccination programs for pets and better treatment for people who are bitten, rabies cases among humans in this country are rare. The best way to prevent the spread of rabies to humans is by keeping pets properly vaccinated, stay away from wildlife animals, seek treatment for any animal bite or scratch at once as well as reporting it to your local health department. If you work with animals in an shelter, rescue group or will travel overseas, talk to your doctor about pre-exposure rabies treatments.

Why Understanding and Dealing with Rabies is Important

Many people might ask, "Why is it so important to quarrentine an animal after it bites?" or, "What's the big deal abut getting your pet a rabies shot?"  Many citizens become angry with Animal Control Officers when they receive a citation that carries a fine for not having their pet's rabies vaccinations up to date.  Many ask, "What's the big deal?"

These are valid questions, but there are very important reasons behind these requirements. First, if an animal with rabies bites a human, the animal will usually begin to show signs of the disease within 10 days. If the animal begins to show signs of the disease, post-exposure treatment can begin at once for the person bitten-although the animal cannot be saved. The reason why the United States does not have the problem with rabies outbreaks that plague other parts of the world is, our aggressive programs to prevent rabies outbreaks and laws requiring pets to be vaccinated against this disease.

Rabies and Virginia Law

§ 3.1-796.97:1. Rabies inoculation of dogs and domesticated cats; availability of certificate.  The owner or custodian of all dogs and domesticated cats four months of age and older shall have them currently vaccinated for rabies by a licensed veterinarian or licensed veterinary technician who is under the immediate and direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian on the premises. The supervising veterinarian on the premises shall provide the owner of the dog or the custodian of the domesticated cat with a certificate of vaccination. The owner of the dog or the custodian of the domesticated cat shall furnish within a reasonable period of time, upon the request of an animal control officer, humane investigator, law-enforcement officer, State Veterinarian's representative, or official of the Department of Health, the certificate of vaccination for such dog or cat. The vaccine used shall be licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture for use in that species. (1988, c. 538; 1992, c. 294; 1994, c. 636; 1996, c. 351; 1998, c. 817.)

§ 3.1-796.98. Rabid animals.  When there is sufficient reason to believe that a rabid animal is at large, the governing body of any county, city or town shall have the power to pass an emergency ordinance that shall become effective immediately upon passage, requiring owners of all dogs and cats therein to keep the same confined on their premises unless leashed under restraint of the owner in such a manner that persons or animals will not be subject to the danger of being bitten by the rabid animal. Any such emergency ordinance enacted pursuant to the provisions of this section shall be operative for a period not to exceed 30 days unless renewed by the governing body of such county, city or town. The governing body of any county, city or town shall also have the power and authority to pass ordinances restricting the running at large in their respective jurisdiction of dogs and cats which have not been inoculated or vaccinated against rabies and to provide penalties for the violation thereof.

Dogs or cats showing active signs of rabies or suspected of having rabies shall be confined under competent observation for such a time as may be necessary to determine a diagnosis. If confinement is impossible or impracticable, such dog or cat shall be euthanized by one of the methods approved by the State Veterinarian as provided in § 3.1-796.96.

Every person having knowledge of the existence of an animal apparently afflicted with rabies shall report immediately to the local health department the existence of such animal, the place where seen, the owner's name, if known, and the symptoms suggesting rabies.

Any dog or cat, for which no proof of current rabies vaccination is available, and which is exposed to rabies through a bite, or through saliva or central nervous system tissue, in a fresh open wound or mucous membrane, by an animal believed to be afflicted with rabies, shall be confined in a pound, kennel or enclosure approved by the health department for a period not to exceed six months at the expense of the owner; however, if this is not feasible, the dog or cat shall be euthanized by one of the methods approved by the State Veterinarian as provided in § 3.1-796.96. A rabies vaccination shall be administered prior to release. Inactivated rabies vaccine may be administered at the beginning of confinement. Any dog or cat so bitten, or exposed to rabies through saliva or central nervous system tissue, in a fresh open wound or mucous membrane with proof of a valid rabies vaccination, shall be revaccinated immediately following the bite and shall be confined to the premises of the owner, or other site as may be approved by the local health department, for a period of 45 days.

At the discretion of the director of a local health department, any animal that has bitten a person shall be confined under competent observation for 10 days, unless the animal develops active symptoms of rabies or expires before that time. A seriously injured or sick animal may be humanely euthanized as provided in § 3.1-796.96, and its head sent to the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services of the Department of General Services, or the local health department, for evaluation.

When any potentially rabid animal, other than a dog or cat, exposes or may have exposed a person to rabies through a bite, or through saliva or central nervous system tissue, in a fresh open wound or mucous membrane, that animal shall be confined at the discretion of a local health director in a manner approved by the health department or humanely euthanized as provided in § 3.1-796.96 and its head sent to the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services of the Department of General Services or the local health department for evaluation.

When any animal, other than a dog or cat, is exposed to rabies through a bite, or through saliva or central nervous system tissue, in a fresh open wound or mucous membrane, by an animal believed to be afflicted with rabies, that newly exposed animal shall be confined at the discretion of a local health director in a manner approved by the health department or humanely euthanized as provided in § 3.1-796.96. (1984, cc. 492, 527, § 29-213.68; 1987, c. 488; 1988, c. 538; 1991, c. 380; 2003, c. 479.)

Content on this page was developed from materials provided by American Veterinary Medical Association.  Click on this link to download a copy of the AVMA’s brochure on rabies.