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Rabies is a very preventable but fatal disease of warm-blooded mammals that has been recognized for at least 4,000 years. Rabies is transmitted, for the most part, in the saliva of infected animals through a bite or scratch wound. Saliva needs an open area of skin or mucous membrane to infect an animal. Rabies is a virus that, once infecting an animal, leads to progressively fatal neurological signs. Wildlife species such as bats, skunks and raccoons, are the more common sources of infection. Companion animals such as dogs and cats can also be susceptible. Humans can become infected from exposure to wildlife and infected companion animals. Therefore, this disease is considered zoonotic. Signs include stumbling, behavior changes, disorientation, seizures and salivation. Rabies signs are quite variable and can mimic other conditions. Signs occur, and virus is only shed, the last 10 days of infection prior to death. Incubation, from the time of exposure to clinical signs, is variable depending on the location of the bite and individual species resistance.

The good news is, the disease is easily prevented with appropriate vaccination. Young animals should be vaccinated as early as 12 weeks then again one year later, then every three years, depending on state regulations. A vaccinated pet exposed to a wild animal via a bite or scratch should have a Rabies booster within 3-5 days depending on your state laws. Humans bitten or scratched by a dog or cat, regardless of vaccination status, need to report the bite to the local animal control, as a 10-day quarantine of the animal in question will need to occur. Humans bitten or scratched by wildlife need a post exposure vaccine series as soon as possible if the animal cannot be found for testing, as Rabies is fatal, regardless of the species (this includes humans).

In other countries, dogs are still a prevalent source of infection for humans. Due to widespread vaccination of pet dogs, cats, and ferrets in the United States, infection of humans from them is quite rare. We need diligent vaccination and to not let vaccines lapse in our pets to keep it this way. There are still 1-2 human deaths from rabies per year in the United States (usually from bat exposure) and over 50,000 worldwide.

- Ashly LaRoche, DVM

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