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

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Rabies Still a Health Threat to Dogs

Pet Column for the week of October 24, 2007

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

News has quickly spread across the country concerning last month's announcement by federal health experts declaring the United States is now rid of one strain of the deadly rabies virus, dog-specific rabies.

This strain is responsible for dog-to-dog transmission of the disease. According to the CDC it has been over two years since a confirmed case of canine-rabies was seen in the country. The United States now joins several countries across the world that have declared themselves to be canine-rabies free.

According to Dr. John Herrmann, a veterinary specialist in public health at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, Ill., it is important for pet owners to keep from falling into a false sense of security. While this breakthrough is indeed an exciting step in the right direction, it should not change anything concerning companion animal rabies vaccination protocols.

Dr. Herrmann explains that the elimination of canine rabies is a direct result of rabies vaccine protocols and laws for dogs that have been instituted across the country. As the number of vaccinated animals increased nationwide the canine population developed herd immunity to the rabies virus. Herd immunity involves the theory that it is more difficult for large numbers of animals to become infected with a disease when approximately 95 percent of the animals in the population are immune to, or vaccinated against, a particular disease.

It is also important for owners to understand that if owners were to stop vaccinating their dogs against rabies and the number of vaccinated animals drops below 85 percent of the total population, the herd immunity that we have worked so hard to achieve will be lost.

Owners should be aware that just because the canine strain of the rabies virus is no longer an active threat in the U.S. this does not mean that your beloved canine companion is safe from this fatal disease. Dr. Herrmann explains that rabies can still be transmitted to both pets and people via a bite from infected wildlife, such as skunks, raccoons, and bats.

"The fact that canine rabies has been eliminated is indeed a triumph, it is important that owners understand that rabies is still endemic in this country and the wildlife reservoir for the disease is a real threat," says Dr. Herrmann.

In general, any animal that could come in contact with wild or feral animal populations are at risk of infection, whether they be couch potatoes or a prized hunting dog. Certain animals may have an increased risk of infection due to their lifestyle, these animals include:

  • Dogs involved in hunting or sporting activities
  • Outdoor cats and dogs
  • Horses that are ridden in heavily wooded areas

Owners can protect their animals by following their veterinarian's recommended vaccine protocol. Puppies and kittens should be vaccinated with a one-year vaccine at approximately 16 weeks of age and subsequent vaccines should follow yearly. A three-year vaccine is available for animals who have previously been vaccinated with the one-year vaccine; your veterinarian can provide you with more information about this vaccine.

Even if your pet is vaccinated against rabies, if you suspect that your pet has been bitten by another animal, whether it is by a stray cat or sick bat, it is important to notify your veterinarian and local animal control officer.

Federal and local health agencies, veterinarians, and other medical professionals are working together to find ways to reduce the rabies virus threat. For more information, please contact your local veterinarian or visit the CDC Web site at