One of the most highly mandated aspects of domestic pets’ health is their vaccinations—specifically, the rabies vaccination. In many places, pets can’t be licensed or travel without proof of vaccination against this disease. But have you ever wondered why, exactly, it’s so important?
Rabies is an extremely dangerous viral disease that not only has the capacity to affect your cat or dog, but also you. The disease is zoonotic, meaning it can be transmitted to humans, and it’s just as dangerous for us as it is for our pets!
If your pet is due for their rabies vaccination, don’t delay in getting them to the vet. Here’s why.
The rabies disease affects the brain and spinal cord of all mammals it infects, meaning it has the potential to do significant damage. What’s most scary about rabies is that there is no cure for the disease once symptoms appear. If your pet has become symptomatic for rabies, the disease is almost 100 percent fatal.
Rabies typically spreads through bites from an infected animal. Outbreaks can start from a single wild animal and spread to unvaccinated strays and pets. This is why pet owners are cautioned against letting their pets interact with strays—there’s no telling what diseases your neighborhood cats, dogs or even squirrels might be carrying!
Unvaccinated dogs and outdoor cats are at the highest risk for contracting rabies. Infected cats are particularly common, since many pet owners do not vaccinate their cats, believing they will stay inside. Even indoor-only pets are at risk, however, since they could escape outside, or a rabid animal (like a bat or groundhog) could find its way into your yard or home.
Symptoms of rabies may not appear immediately after an infected animal bite. In fact, some pets might not develop symptoms for weeks or even months after an altercation, leaving pet owners unaware and caught off guard once they do appear. This is because of the virus’s long incubation period, during which the virus travels to the brain. Once there, it begins to multiply, causing inflammation and spreading throughout the body.
Symptoms are typically neurological in nature and may include:
- Unexplained aggression
- Abnormal shyness or hiding
- Excessive vocalization
- Excessive drooling
- Trouble swallowing
Just as it can take months for your pet to produce symptoms of rabies, it can also take weeks or even months for your pet to become infectious with the disease. Symptoms typically appear shortly after your pet becomes infectious, meaning you or other pets may have been exposed to the virus before you notice something is wrong.
Unfortunately, there is no reliable way to test for rabies while an animal is alive. It can only be confirmed after the animal has died from the disease.
What happens if you or your pet is exposed to rabies?
If a human is bitten by a suspected rabid animal, they can usually receive a post-exposure vaccine that stops the disease. However, there is not such a thing for unvaccinated pets. If your pet has been bitten by a potentially rabid animal and is not up to date on their rabies vaccinations, they may need to be quarantined for months to monitor them for symptoms. Sadly, in many cases, the pet will need to be euthanized. The response to your pet’s exposure will usually be determined by your local ordinance.
If your cat or dog has been vaccinated and has interacted with or been bitten by an animal you suspect has rabies, exercise extreme caution! Put on gloves and long sleeves to protect yourself and move your pet inside, away from the animal. Then, call your vet immediately and inform them of the situation. Even if your pet has been vaccinated recently, they will need to be examined and will likely need a booster shot as a safety precaution. You’ll need to monitor your pet for a month or two in case symptoms do appear.
Rabies prevention is simple and effective
The only way to spare your pet from the dangers of the rabies virus is to have them vaccinated on a routine schedule. Most pets will need a series of vaccines within their first year and then one vaccine every three years. Your vet can inform you of the vaccination schedule, so you make sure they stay up to date.
Protecting your pet also protects you and other humans around you. Should your pet contract rabies from a wild animal or another pet and bite you, you might also be at risk of severe disease and death.
Aside from protecting your pet, and, by extension, you and your family from the rabies disease itself, vaccinating your pet can also offer other protections. If your pet bites another person or animal and is caught, a lack of a rabies vaccination could have negative consequences for your pet due to fear of the disease.
Rabies is a serious disease that puts all mammals and people at risk. Next time you consider whether your pet really needs all those vaccinations, weigh the risks and call your vet to schedule your furry friend’s booster shot.