by Fuzzy Gerdes
Rabies is a disease humans may get from being bitten by an animal infected with the rabies virus. Rabies has been recognized for over 4,000 years. Yet, despite great advances in diagnosing and preventing it, today rabies is almost always deadly in humans who contract it and do not receive treatment.
Rabies can be totally prevented. You must recognize the exposure and promptly get appropriate medical care before you develop the symptoms of rabies.
Where rabies is found: Human rabies is quite rare in the United States. Only 27 cases have been reported in people in the United States since 1990. Yet in some areas of the world (for example, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America), human rabies is much more common.
The incidence of rabies in people parallels the incidence in the animal kingdom. The great strides that have been made in controlling the disease in animals in the United States and in other developed countries is directly responsible for this decline in human rabies.
Although rabies in humans is very rare in the United States, between 16,000 and 39,000 people receive preventive medical treatment each year after being exposed to a potentially rabid animal. Some regions of the country have more cases of rabies than others do. Rabies in wildlife accounts for greater than 85% of animal rabies in the United States.
Animals that carry rabies: Raccoons are the most common wild animals infected with rabies in the United States. Skunks, foxes, bats, and coyotes are the other most frequently affected.
Bats are the most common animals responsible for the transmission of human rabies in the United States, accounting for more than half of human cases since 1980, and 74% since 1990. Rabid bats have been reported in all states except Hawaii.
Cats are the most common domestic animals with rabies in the United States. Dogs are the most common domestic rabid animals worldwide. Almost any wild or domestic animal can potentially get rabies, but it is very rare in small rodents (rats, squirrels, chipmunks) and lagomorphs (rabbits and hares). Large rodents (beavers, woodchucks/groundhogs) have been found to have rabies in some areas of the United States. Additionally, fish, reptiles, and birds are not known to carry the rabies virus.
For a human to get rabies, 2 things must happen. First, you must have contact with a rabid animal. Second, the contact must allow for the transmission of infected material, which will involve exposure to the saliva of the infected animal usually through a bite or scratch.
Contaminated tissue in the rabid animal includes saliva. Other potentially infectious tissue is in the brain or nerve tissue. The virus is transmitted only when the virus gets into bite wounds, open cuts in your skin, or onto mucous membranes (for example, into your eyes or your mouth). The virus then spreads from the site of the exposure to your brain and eventually spreads throughout your body’s major organs.
Moreover, bites are the most common source of transmission. Scratches by infected animals are far less likely to cause infection but are still considered a potential source of rabies transmission. Bites or scratches are often not confirmed in cases of human rabies traced to bats. Therefore, treatment might be necessary after a close encounter with a bat.
In the 20 cases (since 1990) of human rabies associated with a bat, a definite history of a bat bite could be confirmed in only 1 case. It is unclear how the virus was transmitted in the other cases perhaps by an undetectable bite.
Rabies has rarely been transmitted by other means. Examples include inhaling a large amount of bat secretions in the air of a cave by 2 cave explorers and inhaling the concentrated virus in laboratory workers studying rabies.
Animals infected with rabies may appear sick, crazed, or vicious. This is the origin of the phrase “mad dog.” However, animals infected with rabies may also appear overly friendly, docile, or confused. They may even appear completely normal.
Seeing a normally nocturnal wild animal during the day (for example, a bat or a fox) or seeing a normally shy wild animal that appears strange or even friendly should raise suspicion that the animal may have rabies.
Furthermore, the average incubation period (time from infection to time of development of symptoms) in humans is 30-60 days, but it may range from less than 10 days to several years.
Most people first develop symptoms of pain, tingling, or itching shooting from the bite site (or site of virus entry). Nonspecific complaints of fevers, chills, fatigue, muscle aches, and irritability may accompany these complaints. Early on, these complaints may seem like any virus, except for the shooting sensations from the bite site. Gradually, however, you will become extremely ill, developing a variety of symptoms, including high fever, confusion, agitation, and eventually seizures and coma.
Typically, people with rabies develop irregular contractions and spasms of the breathing muscles when exposed to water (this is termed hydrophobia). They may demonstrate the same response to a puff of air directed at them (termed aerophobia). By this point, they are obviously extremely ill. Eventually, the various organs of the body are affected, and the person dies despite support with medication and a respirator.
A rarer form of rabies, paralytic rabies, has been linked to vampire bat bites outside of the United States. In this form, the person who was bitten develops a paralysis, or inability to move the part of the body that was bitten. This spreads gradually throughout the body, and the person ultimately dies. Hydrophobia is less common in paralytic rabies than in classic rabies.
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A slow, agonizing virus leading to extreme lethargy, madness, and an eventual, but certain death – doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? If you do not vaccinate with rabies shots, your dog or cat faces an uncertain future. Rabies is one of the worst viruses that can affect your pet, and with no preventative measures, such as its annual rabies shots, mortality is, unfortunately, assured. When you vaccinate with rabies shots, you are choosing to extend the life of your pet, protect the community, and follow the letter of the law.
All pet owners should know that rabies is a disease that is caused by a virus that is transmitted from animal to animal and animal to human via a scratch or bite that causes a break in the skin. The virus is in the saliva of an infected animal. Because rabies is fatal to the animal or a human who contracts it, it is vitally important for pet owners to have their vet vaccinate for rabies with either a one year or three year vaccine. In certain regions and/or states with high levels of rabies reports, such as Texas, Virginia, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania (1), you must vaccinate with rabies shots at least once a year.
What Is Rabies Anyway?
The rabies virus is spread through the saliva of infected animals. A huge problem in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, rabies kills more than 50,000 people and animals worldwide each year; however, most pet owners do not vaccinate for rabies in these regions. Once contracted through a bite or scratch, the virus begins attacking the peripheral nerve cells and central nervous system, which largely consists of the spinal cord and brain (2). The virus works fast, but it is a drawn-out, painful death at best.
Depending upon where the animal was bitten, it may take awhile for symptoms to show. Without any preventative rabies shots, the symptoms begin to appear and the animal normally only has a week to a week and a half to live. Contraction of the rabies virus in animals is broken down into three phases: prodromal, furious, and paralytic (3). During the prodromal phase, the dog or cat will show signs of apprehension and anxiety as well as develop a fever, although cats often exhibit more irregular behavior. The furious phase sees cats and dogs highly irritable, more vicious, and lashing out at anything that moves. The paralytic phrase can occur after either the prodromal or furious phases – breathing becomes more labored and vital organs freeze up. There have been stories of pet owners trying to dislodge a foreign object from the animal’s mouth because they were unaware that the dog had contracted the rabies virus. The animal eventually lapses into respiratory failure and dies (4). When you vaccinate for rabies, you help your dog or cat avoid all of this pain and suffering, which can easily be prevented with annual rabies shots – quickly and rather inexpensively.
Practice Caution – Vaccinate for Rabies Regularly
Animals most at risk for exposure to rabies are stray dogs and cats that frequently roam in and around wooded areas that bring them in close proximity to wildlife that are the carriers of rabies. Wildlife carriers often include raccoons, foxes, coyotes, skunks, and bats.
Pet owners should also be cautious by avoiding contact with wildlife that are normally nocturnal (active at night) and are normally fearful of and avoid contact with humans. Rabid wildlife are not fearful of humans and may aggressively attack. Be careful of leaving food outside for cats and dogs, which tends to attract wildlife and brings them up close and personal with our pets. Also, be careful about approaching cats and dogs that appear to be feral or roaming about. One bite or scratch is all it takes for exposure to rabies to occur, and if the animal that bites cannot be captured, prophylactic treatment for rabies may be necessary. Unfortunately as well, any preventative measures in the form of rabies shots are far too late to be administered at this point.
It is also vitally important to report all animal to animal and animal to human bites to the animal control agency in whichever county or area the bite occurs. Many people are reluctant to do this if the offending animal belongs to a neighbor or someone they know. However, if the vaccination history of the dog or cat that bites is not known, then the animal or person bitten is at risk for exposure. Pets should be safely confined and dogs should be on leash when off their property. Finally, once you vaccinate for rabies, make sure your pet wears its rabies tag at all times.
Neglect is Costly: Maintain Current Rabies Shots
Rabies shots for dogs and cats are required by the law for the life of the pet. Neglecting to keep you and your family, your pet, and your community safe from rabies is a costly mistake and one that should never be allowed to occur. You have the power to vaccinate your pet from this easily preventable virus. Remember, keeping up-to-date and choosing to vaccinate with rabies shots is the first line of defense to keep the public safe from this deadly disease.
Dr. Gloria Dorsey, DVM, MPH, and Director of Medical Services at the Atlanta Humane Society, received a Master’s of Public Health Degree in Epidemiology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and is a graduate of Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Dorsey, working for the non-profit animal charity and pet adoption organization for over 12 years, has also been featured in Atlanta Women Magazine and was selected as one of the eight “Women Making a Mark” for 2003 by Atlanta Magazine. To learn more about the veterinary services offered at the AHS by Dr. Dorsey, please visit www.atlantahumane.org.
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