What to know about rabies and pets

One of the big headlines last week was the tragic death of a woman in Delaware who had contracted rabies. This is very rare occurrence in the United States; records from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show just 23 cases in the past decade. At least eight of the people who succumbed to the virus were infected outside of the U.S.

The fatal cases listed in the CDC records were caused by exposures to rabid bats, dogs, one fox and one unknown source. Only eight of the 23 cases were from confirmed bites, and the rest are listed as “contact” or “unknown.” I bring up this particular point because it is extremely important to know that rabies can be spread by the saliva of a rabid animal entering through a scratch or open wound; it does not have to be an actual bite.

The point of exposure for the Delaware woman has yet to be determined. Reports in the media state she had a cat that was current on its rabies vaccine that will be kept under observation for a time. Chances are slim to none that it would have been her pet, as the animal that infected her would certainly have perished by now. The reports indicated there also were feral cats around her property; at this point however, the investigation continues and there is no conclusion as to what type of animal may have transmitted the virus.

Just last month, you may also remember reading about a woman from Salem County who was attacked by a rabid fox. This is an extremely rare occurrence, as there is normally very little contact between humans and foxes. Bats would typically be the more common wild animals to which humans might be exposed.

The bottom line: Rabies is preventable. All dogs and cats should receive regular vaccines for their protection and yours. Free-roaming cats are especially susceptible because they have more opportunities to come in contact with wildlife, so it is very important to have them vaccinated. From January through March, you can get free shots for your animals through municipal clinics. The rest of the year, you can find affordable vaccines at monthly vaccine clinics held here at South Jersey Regional Animal Shelter and at retailers such as Tractor Supply Co. and Petco.

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It’s rarely necessary, but humans can be treated successfully for the virus. It is simply a matter of receiving care immediately after the exposure. Horror stories used to circulate about the archaic treatment of inserting needles into the abdomen; this is no longer the practice. Most commonly, bites or bad scratches require a thorough cleaning, a tetanus shot if needed, and stitches when indicated.

Wounds from animals should always be taken seriously and handled by medical professionals. Also, remember also that any close encounters with wildlife should be reported to your local animal control officer or police department.

 

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