Every year I write a post on the subject of World Rabies Day … which was yesterday, September 28th. Dunno why, but rabies has always been a big draw for me. It’s never far from my mind, as I’ll demonstrate at the end of this post in a brief patient story.

And because it always arrives at around the time of my birthday (Happy Birthday to me) — not to mention one month before Halloween — I can’t help but be reminded of the truly frightening nature of this common disease. (As I remind you every year, zombie legends don’t come out of nowhere.)

But is it really common? Yeah, well, not so much in the U.S. Not for a few decades, anyway. That’s because we’ve done an amazing job of keeping this animal to human (and vice versa) disease at bay via vaccination. But other countries have not been so lucky.

Did you know that more than 50,000 people die of rabies every year? If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a year then you probably do. (I say it whenever I talk rabies.) The rest of you probably have no clue. After all, our tremendous success here in the U.S. means that rabies is largely out of sight and out of mind, cropping up far less often than lightning striking a football player.

By the way, I’ve actually had arguments with veterinarians who claimed I’d made up those stats, so disbelieving were they that rabies remains such a threat worldwide. Upon consultation with Dr. Google, however, they’ve had to concede.

But the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) knows better. They always make a point of reminding their constituency of its responsibility on this issue. Here’s their obligatory annual statement:

Please take a minute to remind your clients about the importance of vaccinating their pets and keeping them away from wildlife that can spread the disease. Read the 2011 Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control in the Sept. 1 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Check out the 2010 rabies surveillance report, which can be found in the Sept. 15 issue of JAVMA. And direct your clients to the World Rabies Day and AVMA websites for more information about rabies and what they can do to help fight the disease. Rabies is 100 percent preventable in domestic animals, and you play a key role in helping control the disease.

So the patient? A four week-old kitten who was brought into the hospital last Saturday. He presented as my typical upper respiratory infection case (goopy eyes and gunky nose and all the standard stray kitten sneezing). Despite all this he was irresistibly cute (as they invariably are). But when his benefactor set him down on the exam table it was clear there was much more to the story than a URI foundling.

When held, he’d look for all the world like a normal cat of his age. When set down, he’d wiggle and shimmy across the table in a tremorous shuffle, as if dancing to his own private merengue beat. It would have been almost adorably funny had I not the displeasure of informing everyone that this kitten was a rabies suspect.

Why so negative? Because most cases of rabies in domesticated animals are in cats, and kittens are overrepresented among these patients given that they’re not yet vaccinated and, in their helplessness, more likely to be exposed to wild animals. And any unvaccinated animal with neurological signs is an automatic suspect. In fact, it’s probably malpractice to fail to make this determination, rare as rabies may be in this country.

So that’s my rabies story for the year. More on this little guy’s case tomorrow (I even have a video). Stay tuned!

Dr. Patty Khuly

Image: HuHu / via Shutterstock