The truth about Rabies

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A rabid dog attacks.

By: Dr. Fiona Caldwell
For Pets Best Insurance

Descriptions of rabies infections go back thousands of years, and most places in the world have had reports of this deadly disease. It is highly fatal, with no known predictable cure. While there have been recent reports of human survival after becoming infected, this is uncommon.

Many people don’t realize how fast death can occur once signs of rabies develop. The law, while regional in its specifics, generally requires all pets and most farm animals to be vaccinated against this disease. Even though vaccination is readily available, every year the U.S. reports several human deaths from rabies, not to mention hundreds of dog and cat deaths. Worldwide deaths from rabies are thought to be around 55,000 per year.

Rabies virus is an RNA virus called Lyssa virus. It is very unstable in the environment, meaning it can’t survive on its own and needs fresh contact with broken skin to survive. It is almost exclusively transmitted by bite wounds, but there have been reports of aerosolized transmission in bat caves also. Once the infected animal’s saliva is in the muscle tissue the virus works its way to nerve fibers where it slowly travels up nerves towards the brain. The farther away from the brain the animal or person is bitten, the longer it will take for them to show clinical signs. In general it can take weeks, months or even years to show signs. Once the virus reaches the brain, clinical signs begin within 3 days and the person or animal can become infective and spread the disease.

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There are actually three stages once an animal is infected. Most people know the ‘mad’ or ‘furious’ stage, where animals become aggressive, but this is actually the second stage. The first stage generally involves a subtle behavior change. Social animals may become shy. Vocal animals may undergo a voice change. In the second stage the animal has no fear, may hallucinate and will attack. The last stage is a paralytic stage. Most animals will become weak and start to drool or foam at the mouth as the muscles in the throat are paralyzed. This is the most common stage for people to become exposed, as they approach an animal in distress.

In the last century, the number of human deaths from rabies in the U.S. has fallen from 100 or more per year to an average of a few per year. This is due to control and vaccination of pets and farm animals and to the development of effective post exposure treatment and vaccines. Even though human deaths from rabies are now rare in the U.S., approximately 16,000 to 39,000 people come in contact with potentially rabid animals and receive post exposure prophylaxis each year. Wild animals have accounted for over 90% of reported cases of rabies in recent years. Raccoons continue to be the most frequently reported rabid wildlife species, about a third of cases, with bats at about 25%, followed by skunks, foxes, and other wildlife.

If a person is exposed to rabies or bitten by an animal, quick treatment can prevent infection. Prompt washing of the wound with soap, water and iodine or alcohol can help. It is important to seek medical attention immediately; a series of vaccinations can prevent the disease. Most people working with wildlife or animals for a living are encouraged to be vaccinated against rabies.

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Laws regarding rabies vaccination and biting dogs are very regionally dependent. Your area may differ, but in general, if your dog bites someone and isn’t current on their rabies vaccine, the law requires you to have them confined at an authorized facility for at least 10 days, and then vaccinated. If the dog had rabies at the time of the bite, they would likely die in that time.

You can help prevent rabies by keeping all of your pets vaccinated. Contact animal control to remove stray animals, or suspicious wildlife. Don’t approach sick or dead wildlife. If you are bitten, wash the wound and seek medical attention. The rabies vaccine is very effective, and with proper administration and common sense, rabies deaths should continue to decline. If you have questions about the vaccine status of your pet, contact your veterinarian.

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