Rabies in Our Backyard

Imagine for a moment that your dog is out in your yard and you hear a weird noise. You go to investigate and find your dog and a raccoon locked in mortal combat. You are able to separate your dog from the raccoon and the police are able to capture the raccoon. Thankfully you were not bitten, but your dog was. A few days later, the health department calls to tell you that the raccoon was rabid. It wasn’t until this happened to my best friend and her dog that I realized how little the general public is aware of this very serious disease. The stereotypical image of a drooling aggressive rabid animal attacking a person or animal in a wooded area seems hard to imagine in an urban area like DC.  However, in 2009, there were 57 confirmed rabid animals in DC alone (DCDOH:  www.doh.dc.gov/service/vaccination-bites-and-rabies). The majority were raccoons, but other infected animals included cats, bats and a fox. The majority were captured in northwest DC and southwest DC east of the Anacostia River.

All mammals are susceptible to rabies. It is transmitted via saliva introduced into bite wounds, open wounds or mucous membranes. It travels through the nervous system and is almost always fatal. The first signs of rabies can include fever, anxiety and restlessness. Excessive saliva production, aggression, mental dullness and an inability to swallow are some other symptoms. These signs can occur several days to weeks after being infected with rabies.

The best prevention against rabies is vaccinating your pet and avoiding contact with wildlife. Limiting the stray animal population is also important. All dogs and cats in DC are required to be vaccinated for rabies. An animal can be given the rabies vaccine at 12 weeks, but it is typically given at 14-16 weeks of age. The first rabies vaccine is good for one year. The next year, a rabies vaccine can be given as a one year or three year vaccine, depending on the type of vaccine and species of your pet. It is very important to keep your pet’s rabies vaccine current. Dogs in the District are required to be licensed and they need proof of both rabies and distemper vaccinations.

So what happens if your pet is bitten by a rabid animal? In the case of my friend’s dog June, she was current on her rabies vaccine. However, she still needed to have her rabies vaccine immediately boostered again and had to be quarantined on my friend’s property for 45 days. Rabies in a vaccinated animal is very rare.

If your pet has never been vaccinated for rabies and they are bitten by a rabid animal, they may be euthanized immediately and their remains tested for rabies or they may need to be quarantined in your property for six months.

If your animal bites a person or another animal, they will need to be confined and observed for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status. They are not given a rabies vaccine during that time, even if they are overdue, since you would not want to confuse a fever from getting a vaccine with an early symptom of rabies. If you are bitten by an animal, thoroughly clean the wound with soap and water and contact your physician immediately.

People sometimes ask me about doing a rabies titer as a way to either prove that their dog is vaccinated or as a way to avoid giving the vaccine. Unfortunately, that is not the purpose of the titer. The rabies titer, called the FAVN (fluorescent antibody virus neutralization) test, measures the response of an animal’s immune system to the rabies vaccine. It is required by many regions (like Hawaii) and countries (like Australia) that are rabies free, in order to lessen the length of time an animal is quarantined upon arrival. It is not a substitute for a current rabies vaccine and does not provide legal proof of vaccination.

Another common misconception is that indoor-only cats do not need to be vaccinated for rabies. This can be a serious mistake if your cat bites someone or an animal like a bat gets into your home. Avoid the headache of dealing with the fallout of an unvaccinated animal biting or being bit by keeping your cat’s rabies vaccine up to date.

I hope the cautionary tail of June and the rabid raccoon reminds us all that rabies is out there and keeping your pet vaccinated is an important part of their preventative health care.