Every year, right around this time (September 28, to be exact), I like to usher in the month culminating in All Hallow’s Eve with scary stories about the horrors inherent to the rabies virus. Yes, I consider it my solemn duty as a veterinarian to remind you of the extremes of violence rabies can visit upon you, your pets, and the local wildlife.

This year, I am going one step further as I invite you to take a brief, if gruesome, journey into the heart of sub-cellular darkness. Which is why I raise the whole zombie issue …

I was inspired to write about this subject after I learned that a poli sci prof at Western Carolina University draws his young, video-gaming undergraduates into discussions by likening the world’s political stage to the kind of zombie storyline you might get treated to in a movie or video game — that is, if you’re a twelve-year-old boy.

Since I happen to have one of those in house — a twelve year-old boy, not a zombie (though depending on the precision of your definitions there might be some disputing that) — I’m extremely well-versed on the surprisingly multilayered subject of the undead and their many variations. Which is why it impressed me that anyone would use a zombie paradigm to explain anything, much less international politics.

And yet it works! Yes, geopolitics could get thrown for a serious loop in the event of a zombie invasion. Would we quash them? Force them into camps? Try to integrate them? Which political organizations would take which tack?

Hence, why I thought it might be a great idea to bring this expanded metaphor to the much more natural context of the rabies virus — which in my book may well serve as the ultimate zombifying disease. How better to explain this bug and its mechanisms to the seventh-graders I will be reaching out to on an upcoming career day?

Indeed, viruses are like zombies. They’re not even alive. They merely contain snippets of genetic material from living organisms. In this way, they can be said to be sort of undead. And just like zombies, they "live" to infect you with their undead badness. They’re insidious and wily, too, with a facility for morphing and even extracting new genetic material from its host to maintain themselves.

The rabies virus is especially illustrative of this zombie concept, seeing as the infected animals ultimately do manifest symptoms consistent with zombie-dom: seizures, frothing, paranoia, aggression, and all kinds of altered mental states. Indeed, it is believed that zombie legends common to certain parts of the world evolved from the effects of violent viruses like ebola and rabies.

All of which explains why in today's modern medical world we treat our rabies victims to medically induced comas rather than watching them try to claw their eyes out of their sockets.

Now that we've got that vision under our belts, here’s where I offer you my pearls of wisdom on this World Rabies Day:

Rabies is still out there, and it is far too scary a disease to mess with. People in the U.S. still die of it. If you spelunk or work in an animal service capacity, you’re much, much more at risk of infection. And whether your friends, family, coworkers, or employers recommend it, or partake thereof, prophylactic (pre-exposure) rabies vaccination is something you should seriously consider.

(I'm vaccinated and I regularly test my titers to make sure I'm still reasonably well protected. As soon as they dip, I plan on revaccinating myself.)

As for the rest of you? Vaccinate your pets. I still recommend every three years, though challenge studies may soon prove that a longer duration of immunity is sustained. I do, however, admit to being less emphatic about more than two vaccinations for animals in low risk settings (indoor-only cats, for example). But I'm rabid (if you'll allow me the pleasure of a pun) about vaccinating every single feral that comes my way, whether the "owner" wants it vaccinated or not.

And whatever you do, don’t play with oddly-behaving bats like that genius college student did recently in Georgia. What he was thinking when he picked a bat up off the sidewalk in broad daylight we may never know. But now that the bat’s tested positive for rabies, I can tell you what he’s probably thinking right about now, and them's not happy thoughts. In fact, I bet zombies are figuring prominently in his nightmares these days.

I sure do wish him the best of luck. Here's hoping you and your pets won't need any.

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: "Face seen 'round the world," or Sam, World's Ugliest Dog, from Sam & Suzie's Blog