Rabies: Then and Now

Lorie Huston, DVM
By Lorie Huston, DVM on Sep. 26, 2012
Rabies: Then and Now

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.

Pets are most often exposed through contact with wild animals. Skunks, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, and bats are the most common forms of wildlife infected with rabies. Contact with another infected domestic animal can also be responsible for exposure. Cats, dogs, horses, cattle, pigs, and sheep are all susceptible to rabies infection.

Rabies is a particular threat because it poses a public health threat. That is, rabies is contagious to people as well as to animals. And rabies is just as fatal to people as it is to animals. As a result, most communities have developed regulations requiring the vaccination of pets at risk for rabies. In most areas, that includes both dogs and cats and sometimes ferrets. Most communities require rabies vaccination for pets in an effort to help protect the public from this deadly disease.

If Old Yeller were to be exposed to that same rabid wolf today, would the ending be the same? That would depend on Old Yeller’s rabies vaccination status. Assuming that Old Yeller’s family had him vaccinated against rabies, he would not need to be destroyed in the 21st century. However, if the family had neglected to vaccinate their pet, quarantine would be necessary following the exposure to rabies (e.g., after Old Yeller was bitten by the wolf) and euthanasia would be the only recourse once the symptoms of the disease became evident  — as they did in the film.

Don't let rabies happen to your pets. Consult your veterinarian about the rabies vaccine.

Image via LesPalenik/Shutterstock

Lorie Huston, DVM


Lorie Huston, DVM


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