Rabies: Then and Now

3 min read

Image via LesPalenik/Shutterstock

By Lorie Huston, DVM

If you’re like me, you have probably read the book Old Yeller, authored by Fred Gipson, or have seen the Walt Disney Productions film of the same name. I remember reading the book and watching the movie as a child and not totally understanding why the dog, Old Yeller, had to die. Of course, that was before I attended veterinary school and learned about rabies and how it affects our families and our pets.

For those of you who are not familiar with the story, it is set in post-Civil war Texas. Old Yeller is a dog that is adopted by a poor family when the family’s father sets off on a cattle drive, leaving his wife alone with their two sons. A deep bond forms between the dog and the two sons.

After a series of adventures, Old Yeller is forced to defend the family against a rabid wolf. During the fight, Old Yeller is bitten and injured by the wolf. Because of Old Yeller’s exposure to rabies and the fact that he is now a threat to the family as a result, the older son is forced to shoot and kill Old Yeller.

The Tragedy of Rabies

Was it really necessary to kill Old Yeller? Yes, though it made a truly sad ending to the story, it was necessary to kill him given the series of events that occurred. In the mid-1800s, when this story is set, rabies was a fatal disease and an animal exposed to the disease not only would likely die an unpleasant death but would also pose a threat to people and other animals.

Have things changed today? Yes and no. Things have not changed significantly in the fact that rabies is still a fatal disease. For animals, with very few exceptions, once infected with rabies, death is the final outcome. However, today we have the ability to protect animals from becoming infected with rabies through vaccinations that were not available in the mid-1800s. Currently, we can prevent our pets from the threat of rabies; an option not available to Old Yeller’s family.

What is Rabies?

What exactly is rabies and how do pets become infected with the disease? Rabies is caused by a virus that affects the nervous system of infected animals. The most common means of transmission is a bite wound from another infected animal, although it can more rarely be spread by contact of contaminated body fluids with the mucous membranes (such as the gums and eyes) as well.

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