What is Rabies?
Rabies is a deadly disease caused by a virus. The virus is found in the saliva of a rabid animal and is transmitted by a bite, or possibly by contamination of an open cut. Left untreated, rabies attacks the nervous system and is uniformly fatal! Unfortunately, no pre-mortem test exists for the rabies virus; brain tissue of the deceased must be submitted and tested to diagnose rabies.
What animals get rabies?
Only mammals, including people, can get rabies. Rabies occurs most often in wildlife, particularly raccoons, bats, skunks, groundhogs, and foxes. These animals represent over 90% of cases in the United States. (NOTE- It is illegal in NJ to keep these animals as pets.)
In NJ, cats account for the vast majority of domestic animal rabies cases. Farm animals, dogs, and other domestic pets can also become infected, so take measures to keep wild animals from entering houses, barns and garages. Rodents such as rats, mice, chipmunks, and squirrels are rarely infected. Over 160 cases of Rabies were diagnosed by the NJ Department of Health in 2018: 16 (10%) of those cases were in cats.
How can I protect my pets?
Vaccination and animal control programs have helped to prevent rabies in most pets. It is important to keep your dog or cat up-to-date on rabies vaccinations. Cats and dogs that spend time outdoors may have more risk of coming into contact with a rabid wild animal, but it is important to also vaccinate pets that stay indoors. In the United States, there have been more cases of rabies in cats than in dogs in recent years. Therefore, rabies vaccination is especially important for cats. See your veterinarian for more information or take your pets to a state/municipal-sponsored rabies clinic.
Avoid contact with stray or wild animals!
Unfortunately, our experience at PriorityVet has shown that as many as 50% of the pets presented for care are unvaccinated or considered unvaccinated for Rabies due to lapses in care. We must proceed with extra caution, considerably more than most family veterinarians, given this sobering fact. Abscesses (infected, pus-filled wounds) on outdoor cats are nearly uniformly resultant from bite wounds. And all bite wounds of unknown origin must be considered to potentially have come from an animal carrying the rabies virus. A publication by the NJ Department of Health in conjunction with the CDC is available for guidance (see link below) but the veterinarian must employ judgment in consideration of the circumstances. Wounds of unknown origin in vaccinated animals are not of great concern with regard to rabies. The pet can be treated for the wound and a rabies booster be given with little or no risk of the pet developing rabies or exposing other animals or people to the rabies virus. Unvaccinated animals must be handled differently; stray/feral/unneutered animals are always assumed to be unvaccinated. And while an option exists to booster rabies and confine for 4 months to observe for signs of rabies to develop, this is not always practical or appropriate. A decision ultimately must be made by the attending veterinarian regarding the recommendation for the best, safest and healthiest course of action for both the animal and the public.
Please keep your pets’ Rabies vaccination current for the health and safety of all!
***This blog is prompted by a recent unfortunate situation at PriorityVet and a flurry of scathing, defamatory and slanderous poorly educated remarks on social media. Rather than retaliate, I chose to educate. Those who know me, know that there must be another side to the story – thanks for your continued support!***
Veterinarians are charged by oath and by law not only with the health and well-being of all animals, but also the protection of the health of the public! I take this responsibility very seriously!***
Steven P. Cudia, VMD, Diplomate American Board of Veterinary Practitioners
Owner, PriorityVet LLC