September 4, 2010

World Rabies Day is upon us with its observance on September 28th. This is a good time to remind local residents of the facts and dangers of rabies in our world.

It is hard to believe here in a country where rabies vaccinations are mandatory for all pets, but 55,000 people die from rabies every year. When I was living in Africa, I actually saw a rabid cow. It was drooling, mooing and staring down our car like it was about to attack it. This is something unheard of in the US today and it was a scary reminder of the prevalence of rabies in third world countries.

But, even with the relatively low incidence of rabies in the USA, we do still see it here in the Lowcountry. Raccoons are our number one carrier, but foxes and bats follow for a tie in second place. Last year, the Department of Health and Environmental Control reported ten rabies-positive raccoons from Charleston County. These animals were being tested because they had, in some way, come into contact with a human. That means that in each of these cases, a person or family had to undergo the painful rabies prophylactic vaccinations.

Symptoms of rabies:

Dogs and cats usually start with a fever and then begin wobbling, head bobbing or seizing. There is no test for rabies on a live pet, so when we see an unvaccinated animal with classic symptoms, we have to quarantine the animal, treat symptomatically and see what happens. If it is rabies, they will get worse and be euthanized or die.

Wild animals with rabies tend to show up at unusual times and in unusual places. They have lost their fear, show signs of disorientation, stumbling, circling and aggression. This might be why a bat would come into a house where humans are present. Drooling is often present in larger animals like dogs.

How rabies works:

When an infected animal bites another animal, the virus starts travelling through the victim’s body. It doesn’t really do any damage at first, so it can go undetected. It is thought that it can take up to a year for rabies to move into the brain and spinal cord where it starts to cause symptoms. However, it usually only takes weeks. Just before the virus moves into the brain, it also moves into the salivary glands. Once the virus is in the salivary glands, it will move to the brain and cause fatal symptoms within in 10 days. That is why a ten-day quarantine of the animal that bit a person is required. If the rabies virus was in the saliva when the animal bit, then that animal will be showing symptoms of the virus entering the brain within 10 days. If an animal passes the 10-day quarantine, it does NOT mean that that animal doesn’t have rabies. It just means that the rabies was not in the saliva, thus the disease could not have been transmitted.

Due to the prevalence of this disease in our area, you should:

  • Keep your family away from wild mammals and stray domestic animals. Non-mammals (ie. birds and reptiles) cannot harbor rabies.
  • Have your pets vaccinated. This includes dogs, cats and ferrets. Rabbits and small rodents like hamsters, gerbils and guinea pigs do not get rabies, and thus do not need the vaccine. For dogs and cats the vaccine is given first at 3-4 months of age with a booster one year after the first one. At that point you and your veterinarian can choose to use the 3-year vaccine or to continue on a yearly schedule. The state of South Carolina still requires that ferrets be vaccinated every year. If your pet is not currently vaccinated for rabies, the state has the right to request a test for rabies. The definitive test is only run on a deceased animal. This means that if your pet is not vaccinated, and he/she bites someone, the state could have your pet euthanized. However, they usually opt for a ten-day quarantine instead.
  • Call animal control immediately if you spot an animal behaving strangely. Wild animals with rabies will wobble, drool, seizure and show up during the daytime. They can be very aggressive during this stage of the disease. Do NOT try to handle the situation on your own. If you handle an animal that subsequently tests positive for rabies, you will have to undergo the prophylactic series of shots. If you handle an animal that escapes before a diagnosis is made, you also will likely have to receive the vaccinations.
  • Bring your pet to your veterinarian if he/she has been around a wild animal that is behaving strangely. A booster of the rabies vaccine is all that is necessary to ensure your pet’s safety if his rabies vaccination was current.
  • If you are bitten by an animal of unknown rabies vaccination status or if there has been a bat flying around a bedroom, report the incident to DHEC. DHEC will take over from there and do whatever it takes to locate the biter, ascertain its vaccination status, determine if quarantine or testing is necessary and then tell you if you need any vaccinations. They are extremely efficient and helpful in these situations.

DHEC phone is 202-7020


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