By Christie Long
Lately there’s been quite a bit in the news about the presence of the rabies virus in Larimer County, Colorado. I’ve personally fielded lots of questions from concerned clients who want to know what all of the ruckus means for them and their pets.
Yes, it’s true: we have rabies in Larimer County, but we’ve actually had it for many years. It’s been present in the bat population for quite some time.
What’s new is that rabies has been found in the brain tissue of several dead skunks over the last 30 days (14 as I write this, according to www.larimer.org/maps/rabies.cfm).
Most of us in the veterinary community feel that this ups the ante quite substantially, as skunks are terrestrial or ground-dwelling species, and as such are more likely to tangle with your dog or cat when actively infected with rabies.
Most veterinarians would agree that the days of vaccinating every pet with every available vaccine are over. But believe this: for 99.9% of the dog and cat population, the rabies vaccine is mandatory. Even indoor cats can be exposed to rabies if a rabid bat flies into the house. Perhaps this sounds absurdly unlikely, but it happens.
For humans the post-exposure prophylactic rabies vaccination protocol involves four separate injections commencing no later than seven days after the possible exposure.
While the injections can be painful, the really bad news concerns your pets: there is no post-exposure vaccination that will successfully prevent the development of the rabies virus in an unprotected cat or dog.
This means if your dog or cat is exposed to a bat or skunk that tests positive for rabies, and your pet’s rabies vaccine is expired, you will likely be forced to place your animal into quarantine for some period of time, depending on when the last rabies vaccine was given. Quarantine may involve housing your pet in an approved facility at your expense. In extreme cases, your animal may even be humanely euthanized.
If all of this seems a bit over-the-top, trust me: it’s not. Rabies is almost universally fatal in people and animals. It is extremely contagious and contact through the skin or membranes with the saliva of an infected animal pretty much guarantees exposure.
If you find your pet in the vicinity of a live bat or skunk that appears unsteady or wobbly, especially in the uncharacteristic daylight hours, or even a dead skunk or bat, you have two phone calls to make immediately. The first is to animal control, who will come out and collect the animal so that it can be tested for the virus. The second is to your veterinarian, who can confirm your pet’s rabies vaccination status.
Regardless, double-check your pet’s records to confirm that they have a current rabies vaccination. Never let your dog or cat roam unattended. And talk to your kids about never, ever handling wildlife, even if it appears tame.
Christie Long is a veterinarian at the VCA Animal Hospital in Fort Collins, CO. Long left her job in software sales in 2000 to travel for 13 months. Along the way, she was touched by the plight of the animals she saw and somewhere in the Nepalese Himalayas she vowed to return to school to become a veterinarian. While she often finds end-of-life situations heart-wrenching, she considers herself blessed to be called upon as a trusted adviser to families during difficult times. Dr. Long’s family includes her husband and travel partner, Wiley, their 5-year-old son, Wiley IV, their dogs Pancake and Gizmo and cats Sneaky and Sidh.