By Dr. Andrew Jones
Rabies- just the word alone evokes images of fear, frothing aggressive dogs, and death. The movie “Old Yeller” left a generation convinced that Rabies vaccine is a necessity, for all pets. In this article I am going to give you a better understanding of Rabies, the real risks to you and your pet, and what you need to do to prevent it, and let you know if vaccines are really necessary.
Rabies is a relatively uncommon viral disease that affects mammals, causing inflammation in the brain, otherwise known as encephalitis. It is spread via bite wounds from other animals; in North America the primary reservoirs for the disease are bats, skunks and raccoons. The virus travels from the bite wound, through the nervous system, and eventually to the brain. The disease can be treated prior to reaching the brain, but is inevitably fatal if it has time to spread.
The signs of Rabies start similar to many viral infections; flu like symptoms of fever, lethargy, decreased energy and decreased appetite. The virus can take anywhere from 2-6 weeks to spread from the bite wound to the brain. Once in the brain the ‘classic’ Old Yeller clinical signs can be seen: aggressive, erratic behavior, otherwise known as the furious phase. This then proceeds to the paralytic phase with increased salivation, loss of muscle control, paralysis, and eventually death as the breathing system is affected.
The incidence of Rabies in North America is relatively low, with virtually all of the cases occurring in the Eastern United States. In Canada in 2011, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency reported 1 dog positive in Quebec, and 2 cats positive in Saskatchewan and Manitoba ( 3 animals total). British Columbia’s last positive case was a cat in 2007. In 2009 the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States reported 300 cases of Rabies in cats, 81 cases in dogs, and 4 human cases. The North American dog and cat population is estimated at 130 million, so the incidence of Rabies is approximately .003%, which means that it is extremely rare.
Rabies is easily preventable with vaccines, but there are concerns as to the timing of the vaccine, the vaccine side effects, and how often it needs to be given. Most veterinarians advise giving the first rabies vaccine at 12 weeks, followed up with a booster 1 year later, then to be given every 1-3 years therafter. Rabies vaccine is associated with a number of serious diseases, and these include: autoimmune diseases such as hemolytic anemia, polyarthritis, thyroid disease, anaphylactic shock, epilepsy, vaccine injection site cancer ( fibrosarcoma), and polyneuropathy (the muscles/nerves are affected).
The risks of the vaccines need to be weighed against the risks of getting the disease. Based on the real health risks, my suggestions are to wait until your dog or cat is 6 months of age before giving the first rabies vaccine. Do not give it in combination with other vaccines, and avoid giving it if your pet is sick in any way. Depending on provincial or state laws, (as in many require you to have the rabies vaccine at certain intervals), I would advise having a rabies titre check performed by your veterinarian at 1 year, and only revaccinating if the titre level is not deemed to be protective. Immunologist Dr. Ronald Schultz’s has studies showing that dogs have antibody titres with rabies immunity 7 years after vaccination.
Rabies is a very serious disease in pets, but the risks of your dog or cat contracting it is extremely low. The rabies vaccine itself is one of the more potent veterinary vaccines, with a host of side effects. As a pet owner, you should carefully consider vaccinating your pet for this disease, giving it as infrequent as possible, and discussing the use of antibody titres with your veterinarian. Your pet may be fully protected and no longer need the vaccine.
Dr Andrew J
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