9 Rabies Facts Pet Owners Should Know

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Rage. Just mentioning the word conjures up images of Cujo and Old Yeller, and scares many pet owners. Although the threat of rabies still exists in the United States, its incidence in pets and humans has dropped dramatically due to mandatory pet vaccinations, wildlife control and vaccination programs, and national disease surveillance programs.

However, the situation is very different in other countries. With World Rabies Day, September 28, fast approaching, there’s no better time to review this deadly disease and what you can do to protect your pet, family and yourself.

Here are nine facts about rabies that every pet owner should know.

1. Rabies is a zoonotic viral infection.

Rabies is a deadly zoonosis caused by a virus that attacks the central nervous system (ie the brain and spinal cord). Infected animals secrete the rabies virus in their saliva and usually transmit it to uninfected animals and people through a bite. Less commonly, transmission occurs when virus-laden saliva comes into direct contact with an open skin wound or the lining of the eyes, nose, or mouth. Although rare, the rabies virus has been transmitted by organ or tissue transplantation.

2. Rabies is (almost) everywhere.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the rabies virus is present on all continents except Antarctica. In the United States, rabies is endemic (regularly found) in 49 of the 50 states; only Hawaii is free of rabies. In 2017, more than half of reported rabies cases in pets came from five states: Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Maryland and New York. If you’re curious about the frequency of rabies in your area, you should be able to get that information from your state’s public health department.

3. The rabies virus can infect any mammal.

Only mammals – warm-blooded animals that have hair or body hair and usually give birth to live offspring – can get rabies. Birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians cannot.

It is important to recognize that rabies tends to be more common in different animal species in different places. In the United States, most cases of rabies occur in wild animals such as bats, raccoons, skunks, coyotes and foxes. Cats, dogs and cattle are the most commonly infected domestic animals, although rabies has been diagnosed in horses, goats, sheep, pigs and ferrets.

Since any mammal can be infected if exposed, it is essential that pets are protected with consistent rabies vaccinations.

4. Rabies isn’t as common as it used to be.

In the United States, rabies in animals and humans has been a reportable disease since 1944. This means that the government monitors this deadly virus and the disease it causes in humans, pets, livestock and wildlife for decades. In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) received 4,454 cases of rabid animals from 49 states and Puerto Rico, a decrease of 9.3% from 2016. (The 2018 surveillance reports have not yet been published.) Of these rabies cases, 276 were cats and 62 were dogs.

What is the main source of rage in the United States? Wildlife. In fact, 91.0% of reported cases of animal rabies involved wild animals, including bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, possums, deer, groundhogs ( aka marmots) and mongooses (Puerto Rico). Bats were the most commonly reported rabid wildlife, accounting for 32.2% of cases in 2017, followed by raccoons (28.6%), skunks (21.1%) and foxes (7.0 %).

Outside of the United States, dogs are the most common source of rabies virus transmission to humans (95% of cases worldwide).

5. Rabies is more common in cats than in other pets.

According to data compiled by the CDC, pets and livestock accounted for nearly 49% of all animals tested for rabies and only 9.0% of all animal rabies cases reported in 2017. Of the 399 pets confirmed with rabies, 276 were cats and 62 were dogs.

Veterinary experts believe that one of the reasons cats have become the most common pet infected with rabies in recent years is that many cat owners don’t get their cats vaccinated. In fact, some states require pet owners to vaccinate their dogs against rabies, but not their cats. Unfortunately, cats can be exposed to rabies-infected wildlife outdoors or when bats enter the home, putting unvaccinated cats at risk.

6. The incubation period for rabies varies.

According to American Humane, the incubation period – the time between exposure to a disease and the appearance of clinical signs – of rabies can vary widely. The rabies virus moves relatively slowly through nerve tissue, and the incubation period depends on the location and severity of the entry wound and the animal’s immune system. Generally, the further the wound is from the brain, the longer the incubation period will be. The average incubation period from exposure to brain damage is 3 to 8 weeks in dogs, 2 to 6 weeks in cats, and 3 to 6 weeks in humans. However, incubation periods as short as 9 or 10 days and as long as 6 months in dogs and 12 months in humans have been reported.

7. Not all rabid animals will be aggressive.

Although ‘rabies’ comes from the Latin word meaning ‘to rage’ and aggressive behavior is common, animals infected with rabies can show a wide variety of signs. Very few behavioral signs can be attributed solely to rabies and not to other illnesses.

During the virus’s incubation period, the rabies virus enters the nerve endings around the bite and travels along the nerve to the brain where it multiplies in brain cells. It then travels along the nerves to the salivary glands where it appears in saliva.

Once the rabies virus has reached the brain, a cat or dog may show signs of one, two or all three different stages of rabies. In the early (prodromal) phase, friendly animals may become shy or irritable and snappy, while normally aggressive animals may become more affectionate and gentle. Additionally, dogs and cats may act nervous, apprehensive or anxious and a fever may occur. Most animals constantly lick the bite site.

Wild animals may lose their natural fear of humans and display unusual behavior. For example, an animal that is usually seen only at night may be seen wandering around during the day.

As the disease progresses, cats and dogs usually develop hypersensitivity to light and sound. At this “furious” stage, they appear restless, irritable or agitated, drool excessively, bite or break real and imagined objects, or become extremely vicious. In this phase, the animals also become disoriented and convulse before dying.

In the final stage of rabies, known as the paralytic phase, the nerves controlling the head and throat are paralyzed. Pets may progress to this stage after the prodromal or furious stage. Animals seem to hypersalivate because they are unable to swallow. As the paralysis progresses, deep, labored breathing occurs and the animal eventually goes into respiratory failure and dies.

8. Rabies is (almost) always fatal.

By far, rabies is the deadliest infectious disease on earth with a 99.9% mortality rate once the outward signs of the disease appear. People can be treated after exposure to a potentially rabid animal, known as post-exposure prophylaxis, which stops rabies infection before symptoms appear. However, there is no post-exposure prophylaxis option available for pets. Rabies is always fatal in unvaccinated pets, which is why it’s so important to keep rabies vaccinations up to date with regular boosters for dogs and cats.

Not only is there no effective treatment for pets once signs of rabies infection appear, there are no blood tests that veterinarians can perform to test for rabies. The only way to test for rabies is to examine brain tissue under a microscope.

9. Rabies in pets is preventable.

The theme for World Rabies Day 2019 — Rabies: vaccinate to eliminate — emphasizes the importance of vaccination of pets and other animals, where appropriate. Vaccination of your pets – dogs and cats – is the best way to prevent a rabies infection, as properly vaccinated animals have very little chance of contracting the disease.

According to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), rabies vaccination for dogs is the only pet vaccine required by law in most states, but not all. Mandatory vaccinations for cats vary from state to state. However, communities within a state may mandate the vaccination of dogs, cats and/or ferrets (if ferrets are legal in your state), so it is important that you know the laws regarding rabies vaccination in your city, county and/or state. Your veterinarian can tell you the frequency of vaccination recommended or required in your area.

Pet owners need to know a lot more about the laws and regulations regarding rabies vaccines and pets, especially if your pet bites someone, bites another animal, or is bitten by someone’s pet. another or a wild animal. Talk to your veterinarian about the likelihood of rabies in your area and what steps you can take to protect your pets.

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