Rabies in Dogs and Cats How To Avoid The Biggest Mistakes Pet Owners Make
Rabies is a word that instills fear and conjures images of aggressive, foaming dogs and death. Thanks to movies like "Old Yeller," many people believe that rabies vaccines are essential for all pets. In this article, I aim to provide you with a better understanding of rabies, the actual risks it poses to you and your pet, and whether vaccines are truly necessary.
Rabies is a relatively rare viral disease that affects mammals, causing inflammation in the brain, also known as encephalitis. It is primarily transmitted through bite wounds from infected animals. In North America, bats, skunks, and raccoons are the primary carriers of the disease. The virus travels from the bite wound through the nervous system and eventually reaches the brain. While the disease can be treated before it reaches the brain, it becomes fatal if allowed to spread.
The initial signs of rabies are similar to those of many viral infections, such as flu-like symptoms including fever, lethargy, decreased energy, and loss of appetite. It can take anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks for the virus to reach the brain from the bite wound. Once in the brain, the "classic" clinical signs seen in movies like "Old Yeller" emerge: aggressive and erratic behavior, known as the furious phase. This is followed by the paralytic phase, characterized by increased salivation, loss of muscle control, paralysis, and ultimately death as the respiratory system is affected.
The incidence of rabies in North America is relatively low, with nearly all cases occurring in the Eastern United States. In Canada, for example, in 2011, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency reported only 3 positive cases: 1 dog in Quebec and 2 cats in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. British Columbia's last positive case was a cat in 2007. In the United States, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported 300 cases of rabies in cats, 81 cases in dogs, and 4 human cases in 2009. Considering the estimated dog and cat population of 130 million in North America, the incidence of rabies is approximately 0.003%, making it an extremely rare occurrence.
Vaccines are an effective means of preventing rabies, but concerns remain regarding the timing, side effects, and frequency of vaccination. Most veterinarians recommend administering the first rabies vaccine at 12 weeks of age, followed by a booster after 1 year, and subsequent boosters every 1-3 years. Rabies vaccines have been associated with several serious conditions, including autoimmune diseases like hemolytic anemia and polyarthritis, thyroid disease, anaphylactic shock, epilepsy, vaccine injection site cancer (fibrosarcoma), and polyneuropathy affecting muscles and nerves.
The risks associated with vaccines must be balanced against the risks of contracting the disease. Based on the actual health risks, I suggest waiting until your dog or cat is 6 months old before administering the first rabies vaccine. Avoid combining it with other vaccines and refrain from vaccinating if your pet is unwell. Depending on provincial or state laws (as some require rabies vaccination at specific intervals), I recommend having a rabies antibody titre check performed by your veterinarian after 1 year and revaccinating only if the titre level is deemed insufficient. Immunologist Dr. Ronald Schultz's studies have shown that dogs maintain rabies immunity with antibody titres for up to 7 years after vaccination.
Rabies is indeed a severe disease in pets, but the actual risk of your dog or cat contracting it is extremely low. The rabies vaccine itself is a potent veterinary vaccine with potential side effects.