September 28 was World Rabies day, a day which may have passed you by without much thought. Domestic pets don’t get rabies anymore, right? Actually, rabies is still a public health threat and domestic dogs and cats can certainly become infected.
Rabies is a viral disease of mammals that infects the central nervous system, ultimately damaging the brain and causing death. Rabies has been present in the US since the 1700’s. All mammals are at risk for rabies, but a few reservoir species contribute most to the spread of this virus. Transmission occurs when the saliva of an infected animal is passed to an uninfected mammal, most often through a bite. Rabies is almost always fatal.
As recently as the 1960’s, most cases of rabies in people were due to bites from infected dogs. Significant programs to reduce the number of stray dogs wandering in large packs have almost completely eliminated this source of transmission. Nearly all cases of exposure and outbreak are now due to wildlife populations. While all mammals are at risk for rabies infection, skunk, fox, bat and raccoon are the four species that maintain rabies in different parts of the country.
While stray dogs no longer exist in large packs, stray cats are a different issue. Many cats that are trapped, altered, vaccinated and released are not recaptured at a later date for follow up vaccines.
Indoor cats don’t always remain indoors. An open door or window often leads to an unsanctioned adventure and even one night away from home is a risk for those unvaccinated cats. An encounter with an infected feral cat or even a raccoon or skunk could be life threatening. Cats have been reported as rabid four times more than dogs in recent years.
Here’s how to protect your pet and yourself:
Vaccinate all your pets, even those that are strictly indoor. Rabies vaccination is required by law in Maryland and the consequences of having an unvaccinated animal can be harsh if there is a bite incident.
If you are bitten by an animal, even one of your own that is vaccinated, wash the wound with soap and water and see your doctor. At the very least, animal bites tend to get infected. Your doctor can work with you to determine if you need post exposure rabies vaccinations.
If you manage a feral colony, wear gloves to handle cats and their food and water bowls. Exposure through mucous membranes is extremely unlikely, but not impossible. Keep your personal pets away from the colony. Rabies vaccines need to be repeated every 1-3 years, so keep detailed records of the cats in your care.
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