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Doc sez - Rabies...What's the big deal?

Every day 160 people die of rabies infection. Most are in Africa, the Middle and Far-East nations. “How lucky we are here” you may think with some complacency. And you are right, we are lucky here in North America. We are lucky so many people choose to rabies vaccinate their dogs and cats. That is absolutely why so few people here in the United States die from Rabies virus. We are maintaining a high rate of vaccination in the animals with which we are most likely to interact. However, it is important to remember that there is still a large unvaccinated reservoir population of unvaccinated wild, feral and stray animals the we and our pets may contact that could result in a rabies exposure.

Rabies is a viral disease. As a virus, there are few treatment options beyond supportive therapy once the disease is diagnosed. In the United States a person with rabies may survive the disease, but often there are severe neurological deficits, along with gigantic healthcare costs. In parts of the world without advanced healthcare systems death is certain and horrific. Rabies cannot be definitively diagnosed by any test on a living animal at this time. If a human or pet is exposed to the saliva or blood of a rabid animal directly, through a bite or break in the skin, rabies exposure protocol must be observed. For a pet this would means close containment and quarantine for a minimum of 60 days and up to 6 months to observe if rabies disease develops from the exposure. If, the disease develops or is even suspected, the animal must be euthanized. There is no treatment that will allow an animal to survive active rabies infection. For a human exposure, rabies protocol requires the immediate launch of a carefully timed regime of injections that will supplement the exposed human’s passive immune system and injections to attempt to build an immunity to the rabies virus. This is what should happen any time a human rabies exposure is suspected. Because rabies is deadly for mammals, including humans. If the exposure is from an unvaccinated animal, even a pet with minimal chance of exposure, the pet’s brain must be examined for rabies virus. This cannot be done in a live pet.

Rabies, even here in North America, exerts a great cost, in human lives, in animal lives and in money. Rabies vaccinations are inexpensive in comparison. Why is this a big deal right now? Generally, it is thought that rabies in Kansas is a cyclical disease and this year appears to be the high point in the rabies cycle. Already in the first quarter of 2015, Kansas has seen far more diagnosed cases of rabies in animals than at the same point last year. While the most of these are wildlife, (skunks are a huge wild reservoir and unvaccinated pets are often exposed to rabies through this source) some are dogs, cats, horses and cattle. Please vaccinate your pets and your horses. We can wash a pet or a horse after skunk exposure and things will eventually become sweet smelling again, but after a skunk encounter an unvaccinated pet must be considered a possible rabies exposure. One way or another rabies can be fatal to that pet.

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