by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
Rabies is a disease that most people have heard about. They know that it is a serious disease and that it can affect both people and animals. They also know that cats and dogs can be vaccinated to protect them against rabies. I suspect that may be all that most people know, for sure, about the disease. Some people may feel that's all they really need to know. However, I want to share a few more facts about rabies.
Rabies is a severe, invariably fatal, inflammatory brain disease caused by a virus that can affect any warm-blooded animal. More than 99% of all human deaths from the disease occur in Africa, Asia, South America and India which report thirty thousand deaths annually.
The rabies virus is spread through the saliva of a rabid animal, usually because an animal with rabies bites or scratches another animal or person. The virus can also get into the body through open cuts or wounds, or through the eyes, nose or mouth. On entry, the virus reproduces and gradually moves to the brain and nervous system.
In Canada and the United States, rabies is spread mostly by wild animals. Raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, woodchucks and bats are the species most likely to be the source of infection for pets and people. Domestic animals like dogs, cats, ferrets and farm animals can get rabies from wild animals. This is why it is important to vaccinate pets and livestock against rabies. These are the animals that people most frequently contact and they can act as a bridge between wild animals and humans, bringing rabies into our homes. Birds, fish, snakes and amphibians do not carry rabies. Although it is possible for rodents to get the disease, animals like mice, rats and squirrels almost never carry rabies.
How can you tell if an animal has rabies? Unfortunately, there are no specific signs to look for or simple tests that confirm a diagnosis of rabies. In dogs or cats most consistently there is a change in the animal's attitude - unusual apprehension, nervousness and anxiety or unusual shyness or aggression. Irritability, excitability, wandering, roaming, unexplained viciousness and other erratic behaviour may be noticed in affected animals. Also, animals may run a fever and with increased salivation and the inability to swallow, drooling of saliva from the mouth may occur. Confirmation of rabies can only be accomplished by laboratory testing of brain tissue samples collected at autopsy.
What can you do to prevent rabies? Well of course vaccinating your pets is most important. There are also vaccinations for people who are at increased risk of exposure to rabies. Also, it is best to not feed or handle wild animals - especially if they are acting strangely or if they are seen at unusual times and places. Avoid attracting wild animals to homes and cottages by covering garbage cans and being careful to not leave food scraps outside. Do not feed or handle stray animals. Contact animal control authorities if stray cats or dogs require assistance.
If you or your pet is exposed to an animal that might have rabies, there are some safety precautions that should be taken. If you have been bitten or scratched or exposed to the animal's saliva, wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water. Contact your doctor or a hospital emergency room. Also, contact your local animal control agency and try to provide them with an accurate description of the animal that bit or scratched you. It may need to be quarantined or tested for rabies. If your pet is attacked try to avoid being bitten or scratched yourself, by the attacking animal. Use gloves if washing a pet's wounds to avoid contact with any remnants of saliva in the area. Your veterinarian should be consulted for any health care required and to be sure your pet's vaccinations are up to date.