Rabies, the Insidious Virus

The first image that many of us have when the word rabies is mentioned is a animal, driven to the heights of aggression while foaming at the mouth. Popular books such as Stephen King’s Cujo and even children’s movies such as Over the Hedge have reinforced this image. Because of this, the public may have a skewed image of what exactly rabies is and what signs of rabies may be. Rabies can affect any specials of mammal. Cats, dogs, squirrels, cows, and humans can all be infected.

Rabies is caused by a type of virus. Rabies only affects mammals. When an animal is infected it sheds the virus in its saliva and mucous secretions. Direct contact such as a bite is required to spread the virus. Rabies does not survive in the environment, only in host animals. The scary thing about rabies is that after a bite, it can take up to a year before the pet or human shows clinical signs. Once infected the virus moves into the nervous system of the animal. It hides out here, invisible to the pet’s immune system, until it migrates to the brain. In addition, the animal is actually shedding the virus ten days before the clinical signs are seen. The virus can affect animals in two forms. The first is the common knowledge furious form. These are aggressive animals that will try to attack you. The second form is the dumb form. In this form, the animal can show neurologic signs such as weakness, drooling, bumping into objects, and a change in personality. Some affected animals can also show a voice change.

The most common carriers of rabies in our area are bats, raccoons, and skunks. Since bats are one of the most common carriers, even pets that remain indoors should be vaccinated. In fact, this is required by Virginia State law. Your pet should receive its first rabies vaccine at four months of age. Virginia law requires a booster at one year of age. If your pet is not vaccinated or up to date on their vaccines and bites a person, they will need to either have a forced quarantine period of six months or be euthanized and tested for rabies. If your pet was attacked by an animal afflicted with rabies, they will be euthanized. If your pet is up to date on its rabies vaccine and has had exposure, they should receive an immediate booster and a 45 day observation period. If your pet is attacked by a wild animal and kills it, the animal’s body should be brought to your veterinarian for rabies testing. If you are bitten by a wild animal and kill it, the body should be brought to your veterinarian for rabies testing. If you are bitten by an unvaccinated dog not showing signs, the animal should be placed in quarantine for 10 days of observation as rabies is only shed 10 days before showing clinical signs. No person in the United States has ever contracted rabies from a dog, cat or ferret held in quarantine for 10 days.

Rabies is very rare in vaccinated animals. It is however endemic in our area. The best prevention method is avoiding animals that are not acting normal. This could be a raccoon running around in the day; they are normally nocturnal. This could be a skunk charging towards you and your pet. This could be the neighbor’s sweet dog that is not acting like itself or is suddenly aggressive. If you find a pet on the side of the road, injured, move slowly and use precautions. If the animal was hit by a car, they are likely in a great deal of pain and are apt to bite you.  As always in any bite case, you should seek medical attention. Be cautious and avoid placing yourself in dangerous situations. Even small bites can become infected and have grave consequences. Keep your pets up to date on their rabies vaccinations. This protects both of you.

Dr. McKenna

VETSS is the ONLY 24/7 emergency vet in Charlottesville and we are now offering complete veterinary care for your pets!  Call today to schedule a wellness exam today!


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