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The Rabies Menace: Deadly To Pets And People

Did you know more than 5,500 animals tested positive for rabies in 2015, according to data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention? If there is good news in that number, only 420 of those tested animals were family pets and farm animals.

While it may seem like a small problem in the United States, Victor Duarte, FNP-C, an infectious diseases specialist in Colorado, noted more than 10 million people receive post-exposure treatment for rabies worldwide. The sheer number is staggering, and it becomes terrifying once you realize the possible outcome.

“Once a human develops sign or symptoms of rabies, it is almost always lethal if left untreated,” Duarte said. “Prior to developing symptoms, treatment may consist of administration of any combination of the following: rabies immune globulin, vaccine, antiviral agents and supportive care.”

In short, treatment involves a series of shots: One for the immune globulin to stop the infection from taking hold and 4 more over the course of 2 weeks for the vaccine.

What is rabies?

Rabies is a viral disease people usually get through the bite or scratch of an infected animal. Other ways a person can contract rabies is through exposure to an infected animal’s saliva, spinal fluid or central nervous system tissue with an open wound or mucous membrane.

If you are bitten, Duarte said, “The animal may be tested or it may simply be observed for roughly 10 days. If during this 10-day period the animal exhibits any signs or symptoms of illness, it is then evaluated by a veterinarian. Any human exposure must be treated immediately.”

Typical symptoms of rabies include: 

  • Fever
  • Hydrophobia (an extreme or irrational fear of water)
  • Aerophobia (an extreme or irrational fear of fresh air or air drafts)
  • Agitation
  • Autonomic overactivity with hypersalivation—foaming at the mouth
  • Coma
  • Paralysis

How do you prevent rabies?

We live in a society where animal welfare has become increasingly important, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, trying to help a frightened stray dog or cat can put you in danger of being bitten, if you don’t have the proper training. 

So, how can you prevent rabies? The first step, clearly, is to avoid being bitten by an animal you do not know, and this includes the stray domestic animal you may see. To help them, call your local animal control and monitor the animal to help the animal control officer identify it.

If you do suffer a bite from an animal you don’t know has had a rabies vaccination, the first thing you should do is clean the wound, according to Duarte. You should also contact law enforcement or animal control to get the animal for testing. Seek medical attention, so your doctor can decide whether to administer the post-exposure prophylaxis.

“There is a vaccine for people,” Duarte said. “It is typically reserved for those who have a higher chance of exposure, such as veterinarians and individuals traveling to areas of the world where rabies is prevalent.“

Your county’s website will likely have a page covering rabies surveillance, which is updated regularly. Additionally, the CDC’s website has nationwide surveillance information and historical data about rabies. Remember, rabies is a serious disease, and you need to be vigilant to avoid contracting it. Always remember to vaccinate your pets, too.

Infectious Disease