Rabies & You: What You Need to Know to Protect Yourself & Your Pet

Posted on June 18 2018

If you're a pet owner, you are likely familiar with the term rabies. You hear it every time you bring your beloved pet(s) to the veterinarian. You hear it every time you bring them to get groomed. You're asked to provide proof that they are protected against this horrific disease when you license them, bring a new pet into your home, and when (or if) you bring them to a dog sitter, or boarding facility. Everyone asks if they are rabies vaccinated, and they have good reason.  

When most people think of rabies, they picture a wild, crazy-eyed animal foaming at the mouth, ready to attack. They think "this will never happen to my pet. I live in a pretty safe area where wildlife are far enough away not to bother us. Bats are nowhere near us. Besides, this can only happen to wild animals." Wrong.

A responsible pet parent is an informed pet parent who knows that rabies is a deadly disease caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system, and can be spread to both animals and humans.

How?

The rabies virus is secreted in saliva and is transmitted to people and/or animals through a bite by an infected animal. Less common, rabies can also be transmitted when saliva from a rabid animal comes in contact with an open wound on a person or animal.

While most commonly found in wild animals such as: raccoons, skunks, bats, coyotes and foxes, no mammal is completely exempt from the danger of contracting rabies. In fact, recent studies by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) show that cats have become the most common domesticated animal infected with rabies in the last few years.

Why? What causes cats to have more exposure than dogs, horses, or cattle?

Unfortunately, many cat owners don't vaccinate their cats against rabies due to their cat being strictly indoors, or due to the fact that they rarely ever see their cat because it is always outdoors. It's important to know that regardless if your pet is an indoor or outdoor pet, you must get them the rabies vaccinationIn fact, the rabies vaccination has become a mandatory law for pet owners. 

Cats are not the only ones at risk to the disease, however. Rabies can also infect dogs, cattle, horses, and sheep. The numbers are significantly high in dogs and cattle, as well. Sadly, once the clinical signs of rabies appear, there is no treatment, and rabies is nearly always fatal. The good news is that rabies disease is fully preventable. But, before we begin to talk about prevention, what are the symptoms that you should look out for in case you or your pet has been exposed to a rabid animal?

Symptoms of Rabies in Humans and Animals 

There are a variety of signs that most humans and animals exhibit once they have been exposed to rabies. 
  1. Fearfulness
  2. Aggression
  3. Excessive Drooling
  4. Difficulty Swallowing
  5. Staggering/Trouble Walking
  6. Paralysis
  7. Seizures

Horses and livestock with rabies may also exhibit depression, self-mutilation, or increased sensitivity to light. A less common, but equally important symptom to notice is that some rabid animals my not show signs of aggression, but rather become uncharacteristically affectionate. Never approach a wildlife animal freely, no matter how friendly it may seem. 

Risk of Rabies to Humans

Although Animal Control programs and the rabies vaccination have tremendously reduced the number of human cases within the United States, rabies still remains a major concern world wide. In countries where there are less animal control programs, and where the rabies vaccination is still under development, this disease kills approximately 60,000 people every year, all due to non-vaccinated animals. 

Here in the United States, most of the relatively few human cases have resulted simply from exposure to bats. Whether you have a bat in your home, or have been bitten by a bat, it is extremely important to avoid any contact or exposure with them, as majority of bats are rabid. Any exposure to a bat should be immediately reported to your doctor. 

What To Do if You or Your Pet Has Been Bitten

If your pet has been bitten by a rabid animal, it is crucial to follow these steps and be aware of this information:

  • Contact your Veterinarian Immediately: they will advise you on the next steps, and most likely will have you come in to receive an updated rabies vaccine for your pet. Even if your pet is current on the rabies vaccine, it is always critical to get the revaccinated immediately.  
  • Report the bite to local animal control authorities.
  • After your pet has been revaccinated, it must be observed and kept under the owners control. They will be observed for a specific period of time, in accordance with the law of your state or local ordinance. Animals with expired vaccinations will need to be evaluated on a case by case basis.
  • Dogs, cats, ferrets, etc., that have not been vaccinated and are exposed to a rabid animal, may have to be euthanized in accordance with your state regulations, or placed in strict isolation for 6 months. Do not let your pet stray or roam away, as it will need to be observed.
  • After the period of observation is over for your animal, be sure to have it vaccinated for rabies right away.
  • Animals OTHER than dogs, cats, or ferrets, may need to be euthanized immediately if they are bitten by a rabid, or potentially rabid animal.
If YOU have been bitten by a rabid, or potentially rabid animal, you MUST take the following precautions and procedures seriously:
  1. Do not panic. Panic is never your friend in any event. Remain calm, level-headed, and focus on the treatment.
  2. Do not ignore the bite. If you are bitten, you will want to thoroughly, and vigorously wash the wound for 15 minutes with plenty of water and antibacterial soap.   
  3. Treat with a disinfectant. Once you have properly washed the wound, treat immediately with a disinfectant such as, iodine or ethanol
  4. Call your doctor immediately to explain how you were bitten. Remember your physician is the medical expert, and they will advise you on what to do. Always check with them before taking treatment upon yourself. If necessary, your doctor will give you post exposure treatment, and may treat you for possible infections that the disease can cause. 
  5. Report the bite to your local authorities and health department. Proper and prompt treatment after being bitten, and before the disease develops can stop the infection and prevent the disease. 

Prevention is KEY!

Remember, rabies is a fully preventable disease, and it all starts with the rabies vaccination.

There are many vaccination programs and clinics that offer the vaccine without having to pay an office visit to a veterinarian. Seek them out! Though, I always suggest having your veterinarian vaccinate your animals. They, like human physicians, will answer any questions you may have, and advise you on the recommended or required frequency of vaccinations in your area.

Note: Approved rabies vaccinations are available for cats, dogs, ferrets, horses, cattle, and sheep. Licensed oral vaccinations are also being used for mass immunization of wildlife - especially raccoons!

Lastly, remembering these little tips could help save you and your pet's lives!

  • Keep pets indoors as much as possible. When taking your dogs out, supervise them to make sure they aren't freely roaming. Spay and neutering your pets will also decrease the urge for them to roam. 
  • Don't leave exposed garbage or pet food outside, as it may attract stray or wild animals. 
  • Don't keep wild animals as pets. Wild animals are called that for a reason. They belong in the wild. Observe them from a distance, and share with your children and family members to never handle unfamiliar animals - even if they appear friendly. 
  • Bat proof your home. Bats tend to sneak up into attics, crawl spaces, any place small, and dark. If you have a bat in your home, contact a professional to capture it. 

Finally, if you see a wild animal, or even a domesticated animal that is outside and acting strange, report it to your city or county Animal Control. 

Rabies 1 from Mountainside Medical Equipment on Vimeo.