What is Rabies?
Rabies is a viral disease carried locally by skunks, bats, raccoons and foxes. It is transmitted through the saliva of infected animals usually through a bite but occasionally through saliva getting into an existing wound. Through vaccination of domestic animals, public education, and good post-exposure prophylactic medicine, human cases of rabies are extremely rare in the United States but continue to be a major cause of human deaths around the world. Once symptoms of the disease occur, rabies is nearly 100% fatal. We have seen a few cases of rabies in domestic animals over the years in our practice and continue to stress the importance of keeping your companion animals current on their rabies vaccinations for their protection and the protection of public health.
Can you test for Rabies?
Rabies is an unusual disease because the virus never enters the bloodstream of the infected hosts. Therefore, there is not a simple blood test for rabies like there are for most diseases. When an animal infected with rabies bites another, the virus in the saliva enters the wound and causes a localized infection within the muscle tissue. The virus then travels up the nerves of the animal all the way to the brain, a process that can take up to 6 months depending on the location of the initial bite. From there it travels to the salivary glands and the animal becomes contagious to others. Once the animal becomes contagious it gets sick or dies from rabies within 10 days. There is no test for rabies that can be performed on a living animal. The only test for rabies involves testing the animal’s brain for the presence of the virus.
Public Health Concerns
Veterinarians are responsible by law to take certain steps to protect public health in cases of potential rabies exposure.
1) If an unvaccinated pet bites a human, the pet’s owner has two options:
a. The pet can be quarantined at the vet’s office under supervision for 10 days. If the pet had rabies and was contagious at the time of the bite, the animal will become sick and/or die of rabies within that time period.
b. The pet can be euthanized and the head can be sent to the State Department of Health for the brain to be tested for rabies.
2) If a pet is unvaccinated and is bitten by a wild animal such as a skunk it is considered potentially exposed to rabies.
a. In this situation the animal must be quarantined for 6 months because of the varying time it takes for the virus to potentially travel to the brain and salivary glands.
Rabies and Livestock
Livestock can also become exposed to rabies through bites from infected wildlife. The disease always needs to be considered whenever animals are exhibiting symptoms of neurologic disease. A common way for farmers to expose themselves to rabies is when they find a horse or cow that is drooling in the pasture. Fearing that the animal is choking, they often reach into the animal’s mouth and come into contact with saliva. It is always a good idea to wear protective sleeves/gloves when examining a “choking” animal.
We vaccinate dogs and cats for rabies at 3-4 months of age and then booster them 1 year later. This booster vaccinations is then considered protective for rabies for 3 years. However, due to differing city and county regulations, and the high likelihood of wildlife encounters in our rural setting, we recommend annual revaccinations for most pets unless the animal has a particular health concern to limit vaccinations.
It is also recommended to vaccinate horses and other livestock that are in close contact with humans such as show animals annually for rabies as well.