Doc sez – “Rabies- What’s the big deal?”
Everyday 160 people worldwide 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 the only reason why so few people here in the United States die from rabies virus; not because rabies here is less virulent or deadly; not because of better medical treatment, but because of the success of our rabies vaccine and vaccination programs. 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 that 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 occasionally 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 vaccinated 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 at a (2018) cost of up to $22,000. 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 preventative treatment and in animal lives. Rabies vaccinations are inexpensive in comparison. As spring approaches, wild animals are more active and domestic animals are more often in contact with wildlife. Bats, raccoons and skunks are the most common exposure routes to pets and domestic animals and are not uncommon in Kansas. 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 could be fatal to that pet.