Stop the madness!: Rabies in pets
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 horrorshow 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.
Rabies vaccination might seem like a throwback to an earlier age when the suburbs actually verged on the rural in most of the US, but pondering the ruthlessness of the virus helps assuage the burdensome vaccine protocols we impose on our pet.
Rabies is still out there; and to add venom to its sting, it’s almost uniformly fatal. Consider the spelunkers who contract rabies after exploring bat-ridden caves. Consider the ten cases seen in the US every year and the thousands in Latin America. Consider my own client’s kitten-bitten child whose frightened silence almost occasioned an infection (post-exposure vaccines almost certainly saved his life—as they do in so many cases).
We have few resources in the fight against rabies. If our pets must suffer the indignity, occasional reaction and unknown effects of vaccination in order to keep our human families safer—then so be it.
I’m frequently asked to skip the vaccine part of my protocol. And I will often do so—in favor of titers to measure their continued protection against rabies. But this presupposes that the pet has been effectively immunized previously. Otherwise—I won’t omit it. (For the record, I do favor an every-three-year protocol.) Aside from health certificates, it’s perhaps the one regulatory act I serve that I will never abstain from enforcing.
Too many of my well-meaning clients assume that their pet is in no danger of exposure. And that may well be true. But I can’t take that risk—no matter how well I know the person or her circumstances. Current disease—sure, I’ll sign a “not in best interest” waiver, but that’s the only exception (and it’s often just a temporary reprieve).
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. Next time you consider eliminating the rabies vaccine from your pet’s routine, think hard on what that means for everyone else. Sure, the safest pet is the only unvaccinated among a multitude of vaccinates, but that’s not exactly fair to those of us working hard to keep the rabies virus from exacting it’s ugly toll on the rest of us.