Health officials, veterinarians say rabies serious but preventable

This week is Rabies Awareness Week, and veterinarians around the area are asking pet owners to get their furry friends vaccinated if they haven’t already done so.

Rabies, a dangerous viral infection that can be transmitted to humans, often manifests in neurologic behavior and ferocity, said Susan Ehart, hospital manager at Seven Bends Veterinary Clinic in Woodstock.

Roughly 950 cases of possible exposure between wild and domestic animals or wild animals and humans were documented in 2015, said Mason Allen, environmental health manager for the Lord Fairfax Health District. The district covers the counties of Warren, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Clarke, and the City of Winchester.

“Everyone that’s been treated for a bite, they’re required to send it to the local health department,” Allen said. “We get the report, we investigate whether it was a wild animal to human or a domestic animal to human and we also get reports where they will call in and say a wild animal may be in close proximity or their animal has been exposed.”

Furthermore, Allen said his department chronicled 64 post-exposure shots in 2015, instances where a human was exposed to a confirmed rabid animal. That confirmation process consists of capturing the animal in question and sending its head (rabies affects the brain) to a testing center in Richmond.

These shots, Allen said, are done in series. The initial injection, called an RIG (rabies-immune globulin) is administered at the exposure site on the day of exposure along with a rabies post-exposure prophylaxis injection. That prophylaxis injection is then repeated on days three, seven and 14.

Allen said that those who have been exposed must seek medical attention as quickly as possible. He said that speed is key and that if the virus progresses to the point of symptom manifestation, the case is often fatal.

“It’s very serious and we take it very seriously,” Allen said. “If you have the symptoms of the virus, it’s a little too late. Not only do we try to do outreach but educate people too.”

Allen said that rabies is a widespread concern and that proactivity and education are crucial.

“There will always be rabies,” he said. “It’s always going to be around. It’s definitely an issue and we take it very seriously because there are a lot of domestic animals around and we want to make sure that they’re protected as well as humans.”

Mason said that all mammals can potentially be infected, but that reptiles, birds, fish and some others cannot contract the disease. He said his department sees cases involving some mammals more than others.

“What we call them is high risk species,” he said. “The most you have to look out for are raccoons, skunks and foxes. In the Lord Fairfax Health District, the raccoons and skunks are mainly the ones that we get tested and they’re positive. They get into everything and they’re around.”

He also said that livestock can be at risk for the virus, and that more is known about the disease’s effect on domestic pets than farm animals.

“We’ve had several cattle last year and this year test positive for rabies,” he said. “Wild animals can attack livestock and they can come down with rabies, and we’ve had several cases of that in the past year. We know incubation periods for rabies in dogs and cats pretty well, but for livestock it’s a little different. The incubation period is not 100 percent (known).”

He said to keep an eye out for nocturnal animals active during the day as well as any animals that appear to having trouble keeping their balance.

Ehart said that World Rabies Day and Rabies Awareness Week are important because oftentimes tragic incidents can be prevented with simple vaccinations.

“We’re trying to make people understand that rabies is still a problem in this country and just by vaccinating your dog or your cat it protects them,” she said. “The other thing I don’t think people realize is that if your pet gets bitten by a rabid animal or bites somebody, it can cause serious problems.”

If a vaccinated animal is bitten, quarantining is one method that’s used. Vaccinations of pets should be done “no later than 16 weeks,” said Ehart. The first vaccine is good for a year, and vaccinations are usually done every three years thereafter.

Should an unvaccinated pet contract the virus, Ehart said there’s only one option.

“If we were suspicious of rabies, there’s only one thing to do and that’s to euthanize them,” she said. “If it’s an unvaccinated animal that may have been exposed, there’s no way to test for it other than to euthanize. That’s part of why we tell owners to get their animals vaccinated.”

Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or nbudryk@nvdaily.com.