|From The State Vet's Office|
|RABIES: It’s Not a Disease of the Past|
by Dr. Tony Frazier
Mom: "You know it’s got to be done."
Travis: "I know, Momma. He was my dog........I’ll do it."
That scene from the movie "Ole Yeller" still puts a lump in my throat. I have often wondered how much influence, at least on a subconscious level, that movie had on a generation of young people going into the veterinary profession. While it is an American classic, it is difficult to watch a boy have to shoot his dog because it has rabies.
The story of Ole Yeller was fictitious, but could well have been true, because rabies in dogs was common at one time. Although the incidence in dogs is very low, rabies is not a disease of the past.
Rabies is a fatal viral disease that is found mostly in animals but it is also a serious public health problem. The disease in humans, with the exception of a 15 year-old Wisconsin girl in 2004, is reported to be 100 percent fatal once the signs and symptoms appear. Those are not very good odds for survival. Therefore, the ideal situation is to eliminate exposure to the virus or to seek immediate treatment from medical professionals if possible exposure does occur.
The incidence of rabies over the years in the state of Alabama has dramatically decreased due, in large part, to vaccination of companion animals. Since 1948, there have been 8,165 positive cases of rabies. This number includes bats, cattle, dogs, cats, foxes, horses, humans, pigs, raccoons and other wild and domestic animals, including the opossum. The peak year was 1953 with 732 positive cases (the rabies vaccination law went into effect in 1954) and the year with the least number was 2004 with 64 cases. After the introduction of the vaccination law in 1954 in Alabama, the number of positive dogs was less than 100 for the first time, and within 3 years it had dropped below 10 cases per year in dogs. Since 1963, there have not been more than 7 positive cases in any calendar year. In fact, the canine variant of the rabies virus has not been seen in Alabama in many years, except for a gray fox that was imported from Texas a few years back.
It is interesting to see the trends over the years. From the late forties through the early seventies, there was a great deal of rabies in foxes. It seems to have declined as the population of red foxes in our state declined—just an observation. Raccoons with rabies have remained somewhat steady since the late seventies—in the double-digit figures every year. This increase seems to coincide with an increase in the raccoon population in our state. Raccoon rabies was incidentally introduced into the state when some raccoons were brought in from another state and turned out into the wild. Skunk rabies seemed to see its highest numbers from the early seventies to the mid-eighties. There have been seven human cases (all fatal) since 1948, the last being in 1994.
Those numbers are interesting to look at, but the take home message is that rabies still exists in Alabama, and despite drastic measures by veterinarians and wildlife officials, the disease does not seem to be going away any time soon. Because of that, it is crucial that we affect those risk factors that we have the ability to control in reducing the occurrence of this virus.
First, all dogs and cats should be vaccinated annually against the disease. There is a 3-year vaccine on the market that is being looked into. However, for now the law continues to be that all dogs, cats and ferrets over the age of 3 months be vaccinated annually. It is also important to have strays and unwanted animals removed by the proper authorities because these animals tend to not be vaccinated and have a higher risk of carrying rabies. When normally tame or docile pets become aggressive or exhibit a change in behavior, veterinary medical advice should be sought immediately.
Second, it is recommended that wild animals such as raccoons, skunks, coyotes and foxes not be kept in captivity as pets because they may be a reservoir for the rabies virus. In fact, there is an Alabama wildlife law that prohibits ownership of fur-bearing animals without a permit. There are certain situations where selected populations of free-ranging wildlife are vaccinated through bait drops. However, no approved individual vaccine exists for wildlife species. When wildlife that is normally afraid of humans begins to act tame, rabies should be considered. NEVER attempt to pet wildlife that acts tame or unafraid of human contact!!!!
The third consideration is prevention of rabies in livestock. There is a commercial vaccine that is approved for livestock including sheep, horses and cattle. While it is not a common practice to vaccinate these species in every circumstance, in areas where there may be risk of exposure to rabies, you should consult your veterinarian about the use of rabies vaccine. Rabies in livestock may be exhibited as a change in behavior such as aggressiveness, becoming more docile, an altered gait, appearing choked or even appearing to strain to urinate or have a bowel movement.
Veterinary medicine, wildlife services and public health have come a long way toward the elimination and prevention of rabies. The secret to success, however, is that pet owners, farmers, hunters and the general public remain vigilant and abide by those prudent practices mentioned earlier. In every situation, be very cautious when an animal exhibits abnormal behavior. That doesn’t mean that every animal that acts strangely has rabies—quite the contrary….but it is difficult to distinguish those that have rabies from those that do not. I just hate that the efforts came along too late to save Ole Yeller.