Most of us are aware that rabies is a serious disease, but rarely consider that rabies is a constant presence in wildlife throughout New York State. Rabies is not as rare as people think and it remains a disease of public health significance.
There are an estimated 55,000 human rabies deaths annually worldwide. There are few reported cases in domestic dogs and cats in New York State thanks to a law that requires all domestic dogs and cats be vaccinated against rabies. Thankfully, most pet owners are compliant.
Rabies is contracted through the bite and saliva of an infected animal. The virus replicates in the tissue around the bite wound and then travels along the nerves to the brain. It can take anywhere from a few days to a few months for the disease to show up after an infected bite. Once the rabies virus has entered the nervous system the disease is rarely curable. While human exposure to rabies in New York State is not common, one should always be aware of the risk for potential exposure and avoid high risk situations.
The most commonly reported rabid animals are skunks, raccoons, bats, foxes, coyotes, and feral cats. However, any mammal can be infected with the rabies virus. Rabid animals generally display abnormal behavior early in the course of disease. This often manifests as a normally nocturnal or reclusive animal appearing in populated areas or being seen in daylight. Infected animals may seem friendly initially, but can suddenly become aggressive and bite. Commonly seen signs of rabies infection include anxiety, confusion, agitation, excessive salivation and difficulty swallowing. Rabid animals with overt symptoms are easy to spot due to their strange behavior and are usually avoided by humans. It is the seemingly friendly cat, dog, or wild animal that can lead us to let down our guard.
(Pictured below is a coyote seen in front of the Rhinebeck Animal Hospital mid-day about three weeks ago.)
One of the best ways to protect your pet and yourself is to vaccinate your pet against rabies. Although wildlife in the US accounts for the 90-plus percentile of yearly rabies cases, your pet can be exposed via rabid wildlife and bring the disease into your home. If you are bitten by an unknown domestic pet or wild animal it is important to wash the wound quickly and thoroughly with soap and water and apply an antiseptic. You should then immediately contact a physician and report the bite to the Department of Health. Likewise, contact your physician if there is suspected contact with a bat or a bat is found in the home. Post exposure vaccines, if given soon after the bite, are almost 100% effective and are much less painful than the old vaccines.
Although rabies exposure is not a common occurrence, the rabies virus is ever present in New York State. Vaccinating your pets and avoiding exposure to wild animals and unknown domestic animals is the best way to prevent the disease.
Thank you for continuing to trust Rhinebeck Animal Hospital as part of your pet's health care team!
With warmest regards,