Opinion: What you need to know about rabies

Rabies is one of the most dangerous and deadly diseases that can affect both our pets and ourselves, but it is also one of the more preventable ones. 

Rabies is present across the globe, outside of a few island nations such as Iceland and New Zealand, and still is the cause of over 50,000 human deaths each year worldwide.

Globally, stray dog populations are the most common source for the majority of human rabies cases. Rabies is a virus that can infect any warm-blooded animal including humans and domestic pets if they are exposed to the saliva or brain tissue of an infected animal. 

North America has multiple species that commonly carry the virus within their populations including foxes, raccoons, skunks, coyotes and – most commonly in our area – bats.

In 2018, BC had 10 positive bats from the 131 samples submitted, and Alberta had 9 positive bats and one positive cat of the 420 samples submitted. The rabid cat that was diagnosed was a rare event, but was within the Grande Prairie area. Human cases are very rare in Canada due to vaccination compliance and low stray dog populations – however, a man on Vancouver Island died from rabies after exposure to a rabid bat in the summer of 2019. 

Exposure to rabies is most commonly achieved through a bite wound from an infected animal.  Once the virus has entered the body, the virus travels from the site of the exposure to the brain, where it causes drastic changes in behavior. 

Symptoms of a rabid animal are highly variable and can be difficult to differentiate from other conditions that affect the brain.

Classically rabid animals display one of two symptom styles – paralytic or furious. The paralytic form results in the muscles of the face and throat being paralyzed, which cause excessive salivation and difficulties swallowing. Rabid bats most commonly show the paralytic form - this is why they cannot fly and are seen during the daytime.

The furious form results in severe attitude and behavior changes such as nervousness, anxiety, unusual or unprovoked aggression and biting other animals or inanimate objects. The majority of rabid cats display the furious style. Both symptoms styles progress to full body paralysis, coma and death within 10 days of onset. 

Unfortunately, without a current rabies vaccination history, if a pet was potentially exposed to a rabid animal and then caused harm to a person, humane euthanasia and testing may be required to ensure appropriate therapy for the person. With a current rabies vaccine history, animals can be monitored closely for symptoms after a possible exposure. 

Although rabies is a lethal zoonotic disease, preventative measures are simple, affordable and safe for our pets. Rabies vaccines can be administered by a veterinarian to dogs, cats, ferrets and even cattle or horses in endemic areas. Rabies vaccinations in animals are considered very safe, with the most common reaction being a temporary local swelling and very rarely (as with any vaccine) they can cause lethargy, fever or an allergic reaction.

With veterinary care, any potential reactions can be effectively managed. Vaccinating our companion animals against the rabies virus creates immunity to protect entire families.

— Dr Sydney Spitzer, Alaska Highway News

Dr. Sydney Spitzer was born in Fort St. John and has been a part of the North Peace Veterinary Clinic team for many years. She graduated from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in 2019 and is keen about large and small animal surgery and medicine with specific interests in orthopedics, ruminants, and small animal nutrition.

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