Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Rabies:Vaccinate for Your Pet's Safety and Your Own

Pet Column for the week of October 21, 2002

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

"There is no excuse not to vaccinate cats and dogs for rabies," says Dr. Thomas K. Graves, a clinician at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. "This devastating disease poses a very serious threat to human life."

Rabies is a virus spread primarily through bite wounds. The virus enters the bite wound through the saliva of an infected animal. After multiplying within these tissues, the virus migrates to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal column), where it causes widespread destruction of nerve tissue and inflammation in the brain and spinal cord. Eventually the virus moves into salivary gland tissue, where infectious virus is shed into the saliva, enabling the virus to be passed to another animal through a bite.

Infection can also occur through inhalation of aerosolized saliva. "This method of transmission is of particular importance to people who enjoy exploring caves where bat saliva can be aerosolized and then inhaled," says Dr. Graves.

There are two ways that the rabies virus can affect the central nervous system. In the "dumb" form of the disease, the animal seems to be in a stupor. After several days of infection, paralysis of the body, coma, and death follow. In the more infamous form, called the "furious" form, the animal becomes extremely aggressive and may inflict bite wounds completely unprovoked.

"The biggest problem with this disease is that after clinical signs begin, there is no treatment available," says Dr. Graves. "For this reason it is imperative that animals be vaccinated for rabies. It is also important to avoid handling wild animals, especially bats." Raccoons and foxes also commonly carry the virus. These animals should always be approached with extreme caution.

Luckily, if a person gets bitten, there is a period during which the disease can be stopped before it spreads to the central nervous system. People who are exposed to the virus must receive shots of rabies antibody at the site of the bite wound. In addition they must receive five boosters of rabies vaccine at regular intervals after exposure. Any animal that is suspected of having rabies should be euthanized, but a pet that is vaccinated and then bitten by a rabies suspect can be revaccinated and quarantined for 45 days to make sure it does not develop signs of the disease.

"The best thing that you can do to protect yourself and your pet is to vaccinate for rabies and avoid any contact with wild animals that might be carrying the disease" says Dr. Graves.

If you have any questions regarding rabies, please contact your local veterinarian. If you have come in contact with an animal you believe may have rabies, contact your physician immediately.