Rabies is Still Around, and it is Still Horrific
If you’ve never seen film clips or video of animals with rabies then maybe you’re missing something.
It’s not that I want to subject you to a serious case of the willies (it’s never pretty––in fact, the images are straight out of a zombie movie), it’s just that we tend to forget how horrific the disease is. And that’s a bad thing.
Mad Cow? Doesn’t come close on the horror show scale. Rabies’ only saving grace? It works commando style. It doesn’t like to draw things out too long. Mad Cow might give you time to say goodbye to your family, but rabies is blissfully brief––a matter of days or weeks of debilitating, increasingly dramatic neurologic degradation, not months or years of lingering decline.
Ebola? OK, so Ebola wins for extremes of sheer, stomach-turning malice. At least the rabies virus has the benefit of ruining the brain so that the patient’s most ghastly moments are suffered in a state of minimized awareness––potentially. Still, I personally think it’s better to lose your mind quickly and violently than know for sure that your eyes are bleeding ... for the first and last time.
I’m not trying to be gratuitously graphic––I actually have a point here. Sometimes I think it’s a good idea to remind people that diseases fight dirty. It might even make you think twice about that one in a million chance that your pet will contract them. And with rabies it’s not just about your dog (or, more commonly, your cat). It’s about you and your humans, too.
But plenty of my clients don’t always seem to get this point. They like to insist that their cat never goes out (except when it does) and that their dog would never deign to interact with a raccoon.
And, yes, I’ll concede that rabies vaccination sometimes seems like a throwback to an earlier age when the suburbs actually verged on the rural in most of the U.S.––to a time when rabies was actually out there in full force.
But here’s the truth: Here in the U.S. we have the finest rabies eradication program on the planet. Yet we still have rabies. And it’s still almost uniformly fatal.
Don't believe me? Consider the 6,841 cases seen in the U.S. last year. Though this number is down 3.1 percent from 2007, consider that 294 cats were infected, which represents a 12 percent increase from the year before. And finally, consider that two U.S. citizens actually died of rabies last year. Nastily, I'm sure.
The problem is that we have few resources in the fight against rabies once it hits––that is, apart from euthanasia and the drug-induced comas we now submit our human infectees to. If our pets must suffer the indignity, and the occasional reactions and unknown effects of a vaccination in order to keep our human families safer––then so be it.
As much as my veterinarian’s oath urges me to treat animals as individuals and offer them the safest care possible, human public safety trumps that—and that’s also in my oath. So the next time you consider eliminating the rabies vaccine from your pet’s routine, think hard on what that means for everyone else.
That’s why I like having my clients (and my readers) ponder the horrific ruthlessness of the virus. In my case, it definitely helps assuage the burdensome, every-three-year rabies vaccine protocols I impose on my patients and my own pets––never mind the series of three vaccines I’ve had to suffer to keep my patients from infecting me.
Dr. Patty Khuly