Vaccinations Part IV: Rabies

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Rabies is one of the most well-known and feared infections of both humans and animals. Rabies infection affects the central nervous system and causes disease of the brain which quickly leads to death. Due to the severity of the disease and its public health risk, domestic dogs, cats, and ferrets are required by law to be currently vaccinated for rabies.

Worldwide, rabies infections cause approximately 55,000 human deaths annually. Thanks to successful vaccination protocols in domestic animals, the incidence of human rabies deaths in the United States is low, with 1 to 2 cases per year.

Rabies infection primarily occurs in wildlife, and it only affects mammals. The most common culprits are skunks, bats, raccoons, foxes, and coyotes. According to the North Carolina Department of Public Health, raccoon rabies is present in virtually every county in North Carolina.

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Unlike many other viruses, the rabies virus is not stable in the environment; transmission requires direct contact with the mucous membranes or saliva of an infected animal, most commonly via a bite wound. It takes an average of 20-30 days from time of infection until symptoms occur, although in some cases it may take up to one year. Once symptoms occur, the disease is not treatable, and death usually occurs within 10 days.

Symptoms of infection are variable, and include fearfulness, aggression, excessive salivation, paralysis, incoordination, and seizures. It may cause uncharacteristic behavior, such as daytime activity in animals that are normally nocturnal. It can sometimes cause wild animals to act as though they are tame and friendly; it is therefore very important to never touch a wild animal, especially one that is acting unusually affectionate.

North Carolina state law requires that “any owner of a dog, cat or ferret shall have their animal vaccinated by four months of age and keep the animal currently vaccinated against rabies.” Vaccines must be licensed by the USDA and approved for use in the species to be vaccinated. State law mandates that rabies vaccines must be administered by a licensed veterinarian, a registered veterinary technician under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian, or by a certified rabies vaccinator.

A pet’s initial rabies vaccine is considered current for one year. In most cases, a pet may receive a three-year rabies vaccine as long as it is administered before the expiration of the previous rabies vaccine. However, legal vaccine duration will depend upon the particular vaccine administered and the recommendations of your veterinarian.

State law does not recognize rabies titers in lieu of vaccination. The NC Rabies Control Manual states that, “if a dog, cat or ferret that is not currently vaccinated against rabies (for ANY reason) is exposed to rabies it will be subject to immediate euthanasia or six-month quarantine at the discretion of the local health director, even if the animal has a documented rabies titer.” It is therefore of utmost importance to animals and humans that all pets remain current on their rabies vaccines.

For more information, contact your veterinarian, or visit: