World Rabies Day is tomorrow, Saturday, September 28. This is an international awareness day aimed at educating people about this lethal, but 100% preventable disease.
Started in 2007, World Rabies Day has grown to encompass numerous global events, such as free rabies vaccination clinics, “fun runs” to raise awareness, and open days at clinics, where free information is distributed.
For many people, rabies is a thing to think about whenever a pet dog or cat needs a vaccination and a new rabies tag on the collar. It may also come to mind when they see a raccoon or opossum nosing around in the middle of the day or acting somewhat “off.” Most folks aren’t aware that livestock animals need to be vaccinated against rabies as well.
In the U.S., the reservoir for this disease is wildlife, primarily bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes (and the mongoose, if you live in Puerto Rico). This means livestock out on pasture is at risk for possible exposure to the rabies virus at most times of the year. Luckily, there are rabies vaccines on the market that are approved for use in cattle, horses, and sheep. There is no vaccine approved for use in goats, so any rabies vaccine given to goats is considered “extra-label” and must be given under the care of a veterinarian.
Legally, for cats and dogs to be registered for a pet license in the county they live in, they must be up to date on their rabies vaccinations. There is no such law in place for livestock. This makes some owners lax against vaccinating their horses and cattle, especially if they have a large herd. Realistically, for large ranches with livestock numbers in the thousands, it is not cost effective to vaccinate for rabies. However, for smaller farms, particularly with 4-H animals traveling to fairs, vaccinating for rabies is worth the investment (and required for interstate health papers).
Take this example: A few years ago, a client with a small farm containing a modest variety of cattle, sheep, and horses had a rabies scare; a rabid raccoon was killed on their premises. Not knowing how long the raccoon had been sneaking around and which animals (or children) had potential contact with it, all of the animals would have had to be put under tight quarantine or potentially euthanized if not for the fact that all of the animals were up to date on their rabies vaccinations. Thank goodness!
Ironically, it was the family who had to undergo prophylactic rabies post-exposure vaccination and let me tell you, those are not cheap, not painless, and they are potentially not covered by health insurance. But all in all, that was a happy ending story.
The United States is fortunate when it comes to rabies. Since the 1960s, rabies cases have shifted from primarily being in livestock to primarily in wildlife, and over the past few decades, human rabies cases only number about one or two per year.
Rabies vaccines are relatively cheap for our pets and wildlife control is efficient. Other countries aren’t so lucky and it’s mostly stray dogs that are the leading cause of rabies incidents in the global human population.
Let’s take a few minutes tomorrow to reflect on how far we’ve come in rabies control and how much more work there is still to do.
Dr. Anna O’Brien