As the daughter of a Veterinarian, I remember growing up hearing stories of rabid dogs staggering down the streets of towns with their mouths hanging open dripping profuse amounts of saliva. This was very alarming to me not only because of the dogs’ suffering, but because I knew that these dogs could transmit rabies to me if they were to bite me or get any of their saliva in a scratch or an abrasion on my skin. And, I really liked petting dogs, even sick ones!
Actually, all warm-blooded animals are vulnerable to infection with the rabies virus. Once symptoms develop, rabies is almost fatal. There have only been six human patients that have survived symptomatic rabies without receiving the rabies vaccine. They received an experimental treatment involving being put into a chemically induced coma and administered antiviral drugs.
The disease is transmitted when the rabies virus is introduced into bite wounds, into open cuts in skin, or onto mucous membranes from saliva or other potentially infectious material such as neural tissue. In humans, it has been acquired by corneal transplantation as well.
Rabies causes annually about 50,000 human deaths worldwide according to the World Health Organization. In addition, ten to twelve million people receive post exposure treatment. An estimated 39,000 people in the US receive post exposure prophylaxis (PEP). Worldwide, domestic and feral dogs account for most human rabies deaths and PEP. Parenteral (i.e. injectable) vaccination of dogs has been the single most important means of controlling rabies in people.
Cats now have replaced dogs in the United States as the most common rabid domestic animal. This increase probably reflects the low number of cats vaccinated for rabies. In recent years there have been human exposure to rabid cats or kittens in the US. One well documented exposure was in July of 2007. Twenty seven persons were identified as having exposures that warranted PEP after handling a rabid kitten that was found in a trash barrel during a softball tournament in Spartanburg County, S.C.
Rabid cats commonly become infected with the raccoon variant of the virus presumably following a raccoon attack. Cats are exposed to raccoons because raccoons have adopted well to suburban and semi-urban environments. I can attest to this personally. A few years ago at my home in Atlanta proper, my husband was chased by a raccoon while he was taking out the trash one evening.
Raccoons should run from humans not toward them. When raccoons and other wild mammals such as bats or skunks approach humans or are seen in the daylight, one must assume they might have rabies. This is a good reason why one should not feed or approach raccoons or any other wild mammal.
If you have a concern about wildlife in your yard, you can contact Animal Control. The animals can be humanely trapped and removed.
It is important to know that no premortem diagnostic test is sensitive enough to be consistently reliable for rabies diagnosis in animals. There are tests that can be performed before death on serum, cerebrospinal fluid or tissue biopsies. However, negative results on these tests do not rule out the possibility that the animal is infected. The definitive diagnostic test is the demonstration of rabies virus in suitable brain tissue.
If you are bitten by an animal, you should immediately wash the bite area with warm soapy water. Then report the bite to the police, local Animal Control, Poison Center, health department, and of course your physician.
The best way to help control rabies in Georgia is by following the Georgia law (Rabies Control Law – O.C.G. A-31-19) which requires that all owned dogs and cats be vaccinated against rabies by a licensed veterinarian using USDA approved vaccines in accordance with the Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control. Domestic ferrets need to be vaccinated against rabies as well. You should check with your veterinarian to learn the best options for vaccination of your pet.
Finally, this discussion of rabies is not intended to scare but to educate. We do not need to take this killer virus for granted. We need to stay vigilant in the prevention of this disease.
Dr. Amanda Reeve is an associate veterinarian at Briarcliff Animal Clinic located at 1850 Johnson Rd., Atlanta, GA 30306.