The Carlsbad, New Mexico area just suffered through one of the worst rabies outbreaks in the state’s recent history. Over a three month period from the end of 2011 to the beginning of 2012, 32 dogs, 1 cat and 10 sheep had to be euthanized because they had been exposed to a rapid fox. During that December, January, and February tests also showed that 22 skunks in the area were infected with rabies.
What makes this outbreak especially painful is that almost all of the euthanasias could have been prevented if only the pets and livestock had been up-to-date on their rabies vaccines. In addition, twelve people in the Carlsbad area had to go through post-exposure prophylaxis even though no one was directly exposed to rabid wildlife. In one example, an unvaccinated dog came down with rabies and the entire family — all eight people — needed to get expensive, post-exposure prophylaxis according to Dr. Paul Ettestad, New Mexico’s state public health veterinarian.
I just don’t get it. Why do so many people fail to protect their pets and themselves from such a deadly disease when safe and effective rabies vaccines are so readily available? I understand when people can’t spend large amounts of money on a pet when the budget is tight, but that’s no excuse when it comes to rabies vaccines. They are dirt cheap. In fact, with a little research owners can oftentimes get them for free. Here in Colorado, 73 veterinary clinics just took part in a campaign providing complimentary wellness exams and rabies vaccinations to over 1,047 pets. Similar events can be found all across the country.
The only dogs or cats that I don’t recommend receive rabies vaccinations on the schedule dictated by local regulations are those that have had a documented anaphylactic reaction (i.e., a life-threatening allergic reaction) to a previous rabies vaccination and those that are so sick that the risk of vaccination outweighs the benefits. In these cases, veterinarians usually need to fill out a form or write a letter to the appropriate regulatory agency explaining why they have declined to vaccinate.
I don’t consider healthy old age or indoor only status a good reason to skip rabies vaccination even though I often recommend against vaccinating for other diseases under these circumstances. Why? Because if one of these pets is ever exposed to an animal that is known or suspected to have rabies or it ever bites someone, it’s lack of current vaccination is going to spell big trouble.
Many owners have heard of the ten day quarantine that is typically mandatory after a pet has bitten someone, but the situation is even more serious when a pet is exposed to a potentially rabid animal. Dogs and cats that are current on their rabies vaccines generally receive a booster vaccine and are quarantined for 45 days or so (this can often be done at home). However, if your pet does not have a current rabies vaccine, euthanasia is the most likely outcome. If you do not permit this, a strict quarantine of six months or longer will imposed, most likely at your expense.
Are your pets current on their rabies vaccinations? If not, what’s your excuse?
Dr. Jennifer Coates