Animals / Dogs / Health & Nutrition

Rabies virus: a deadly threat to pets

Most people are familiar with rabies, the deadly viral disease. For many, the image of crazed, mean dogs attacking and frothing at the mouth is what comes to mind.

While these images are conjured up from cinema, most don’t realize that the disease is actually still present and poses a threat in our area.

Throughout the years, the risk of contracting rabies has been significantly reduced in the United States because our animal population is largely vaccinated. This seems to give pet owners a false sense of security that the disease is no longer present in our environment.

However, frequent testing of the wildlife population and a recent human death in Wyoming indicates that this is not the case. Continued aggressive vaccination is essential to maintaining control of the disease.  

Rabies is a fatal viral disease that can infect both animals and humans.  The virus is transmitted most commonly by the bite of an infected animal, but may also be transmitted by contact with infected spinal fluid  or potentially saliva-to-mucus membrane contact.

There are two clinical forms – the “furious form” and the “dumb form.” With the “furious form,” animals will exhibit aggressive behavior, hypersalivation and disorientation prior to cardiovascular failure. With the “dumb form,” they may be depressed, act confused, become paralyzed or exhibit mild nonspecific signs of illness prior to death.

Rabies is a huge public health concern in countries where the animal population is largely unvaccinated. Upwards of 50,000 human deaths occur annually in these countries. Sadly, the majority are children bitten by rabid dogs.

In the United States, where domestic animals are vaccinated, 90 percent of documented rabies cases are in the wildlife population. In this country, cats are the most frequently infected domestic animal, likely due to the high number of unvaccinated strays.  

The Wyoming State Veterinary Lab performs necropsies on suspect wildlife. In 2014, there was a dramatic increase in the number of infected skunks in Laramie County. While skunks appear to be the most likely source of infection in our area, bats are of concern as well.

Bats may be underrepresented as a source because they are less likely to be brought in for testing. In October of 2015, a Lander woman died of rabies after being bitten in her home by an infected bat, marking the first human death in Wyoming.

Interestingly, this year in Kansas there have been 13 confirmed cases of rabies in cattle, which marks a large increase from previous years. This is an important statistic because cattle and horses are often overlooked when it comes to rabies prevention.  

The rabies vaccine for dogs and cats is a killed virus vaccine. Through the years, the carrier has been modified to make it very safe and reliable. In most cases, the vaccine is good for three years. For horses, rabies is an annual vaccine  There is currently no approved vaccine for cattle.

In veterinary practice, we often hear people decline to vaccinate their pet because they are kept indoors only, or they live in the city where there is no wildlife contact. However, bats and skunks are frequently unwelcome guests within city limits.  Curious pets are very likely to be the first in contact with these animals, especially since infected animals may behave abnormally and approach a pet.

Because the disease is still largely present in our wildlife population, the consequence of a decrease in vaccination of the pet population could cause this fatal disease to become much more prevalent in both pets and humans. Additionally, the city of Cheyenne requires rabies vaccination and licensure to be in accordance with the law to protect pet and human lives.

If you have any questions about rabies, please contact your local veterinarian.

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