Today is World Rabies Day!

I know it doesn't sound like a reason to celebrate (and it's not) but it's still an important reminder that a killer disease is still in our midst. Here's an article I wrote for the Miami Herald on this issue:

Several years ago a father and his young son brought me a small, black kitten they’d found in their yard just days before. Though initially vigorous and healthy, she’d begun to twitch her head ominously over the past 24 hours. What’s more, this formerly playful kitten now growled and hissed without provocation.

I asked all the questions veterinarians are trained to ask in these instances, including the most critical one: Did she bite anyone?

“No” came the ready reply. But I had reason to doubt. Gently, I asked the son if the marks on his hands were the result of her claws—or perhaps her teeth. He claimed she’d scratched him with her teeth but insisted they weren’t “bites.”

As all veterinarians are instructed to do in cases where rabies is a possibility, I called the local Health Department. After listening to my description of the situation the authorities recommended immediate brain tissue analysis…as in, euthanasia…now!

The kitten’s family quickly agreed and the child was dispatched to a nearby emergency room.

Meanwhile, the kitten’s veterinarian was charged with the grim task of administering an overdose of several medications, removing her tiny head, and braving Miami traffic to deliver it personally…on ice. It was an unpleasant day for me—one I’ll not soon forget.

Such is the level of emergency whenever anyone is exposed to a potentially rabid animal. While the measures may seem extreme, rabies is a notoriously incurable disease with only a handful of survivors for every few thousand infected. Why else would any self-respecting veterinarian subject an animal to sudden death in lieu of treatment?

Within several hours the lab concluded the kitten did not carry rabies. All that barbaric work for nothing, you may think. But what if she had? In the event of a confirmed diagnosis, everyone involved would have received a series of post-exposure vaccines (myself included, despite all the pre-exposure rabies vaccinations I’ve already suffered).

I’m telling you this macabre story because today is World Rabies Day. On this day veterinarians and public health officials exhort the public to remain vigilant of this killer virus, one still endemic to the US wildlife population and a threat to most of the world’s mammalian populations. For my part I could think of no better way to recruit your attention than to relate my gruesome tale.

Though rabies is rigidly controlled in the US, it’s nonetheless responsible for the death of two or three Americans every year—most of whom are unaware they’ve been exposed (just like my client’s son). Worldwide, this viral infection accounts for 55,000 deaths every year—all of which are 100% preventable. Sickeningly, it’s reported that one person dies of rabies every ten minutes, most of them in Asia and Africa.

Yet closer to home, it’s clear more work needs to be done. Though more than 90% of rabies in the US is found in wildlife species, dogs and cats are high-risk vectors whose domestic proximity to humans makes them ideal transmitters.

That’s why vaccinating our pets regularly (every one to three years) provides a huge epidemiological barrier against the spread of this disease to humans. But it’s not enough. Though Miami-Dade has been largely spared over the past twenty years (last year’s case of a man bitten by a rabid bat, notwithstanding), cases in Broward and Palm Beach Counties are on the rise. So what’s a community to do?

In a fiscal climate where budget cuts loom over all “non-essential” services, individual sacrifices are sometimes required to support a sagging state of affairs. License fees for pets help fund our animal shelters, provide the community with low-cost population control services and make rabies vaccines widely available. Yet only an estimated 30% of our area’s owned dogs are licensed. Presumably, a far smaller percentage of our total canine and feline population(s) are vaccinated against rabies.

Licensing and vaccination is a small sacrifice for pet owners (approximately $3-$40 a year in low-cost settings). How much more could our community accomplish in terms of rabies safety and humanitarian aid to needy animals if more of us elected to obey the law?

And then there’s our ability to simply pay attention. Knowing what’s at risk means we need to be aware of how the pets, feral cats and wildlife in our neighborhoods behave. Because rabies makes animals act erratically, the first sight of abnormal behavior should trigger the thought of rabies. Call your county’s Animal Services for assistance.

Should a bite actually occur, regardless of the offending species, it must be reported to your physician immediately. Not all rabid animals will display the same symptoms (or any) so that even bites from seemingly healthy, unvaccinated animals fall under this advisory.

Finally, remember my story and take this opportunity to discuss bites with your children. Knowing that kids often hide their run-ins with the animal kingdom, please make them aware of the risks they run if they don’t tell when they’ve been bitten…or even “scratched by teeth.” Rare as it may be to contract rabies, there’s no need to take a chance…is there?

Contact your county Animal Services division or any licensed veterinarian on how to keep your pets and our community safe through rabies vaccination.