This past week was Rabies Awareness Week in Virginia. In the United States, over 20,000 people are treated for potential rabies exposure each year.  Roughly three dozen Americans die from rabies infection each decade.  Nationally, 7,000-9,000 animals are detected with rabies every year, 500-600 in Virginia alone.  The most common animals infected with rabies are raccoons, foxes, skunks, bats, cats, dogs, and some farm animals.  In Virginia, the most common human exposure is through cats, followed closely by bats.

People generally know when they have been bitten, but according to the Virginia Department of Heath (VDH), there are situations in which you should seek medical advice even in the absence of an obvious bite wound.  If you awaken and find a bat in your room, see a bat in the room of an unattended child, or see a bat near a mentally impaired or intoxicated person, you should contact the local health department.

The VDH also strongly advises people to follow these guidelines to prevent families and pets from being exposed to rabies:

  • Vaccinate all cats, dogs, ferrets, and selected livestock against rabies and keep them up to date!
  • Avoid contact with wild animals or stray cats and dogs.
  • Report stray animals to your local animal control agency.
  • Eliminate outdoor food sources around the home.
  • Keep pets confined to your property or walk them on a leash.

If your pet is attacked or bitten by a wild animal, promptly report it to your veterinarian and the local health department or animal control authorities.  If your pet bites someone, the person should seek medical attention and the local health department should be contacted.  Even if your pet is current on rabies vaccine, there are guidelines that should be followed.  If the pet does not have a current rabies vaccine, there are much more serious ramifications.

If you have been bitten by an animal, immediately wash the wound thoroughly with soap and copious amounts of water.  This step will significantly reduce your risk of infection.  It is extremely important to promptly report the bite would to your doctor and the local health department.  The VDH advises, “if possible, capture the animal under a large box or can, or at least identify it before it runs away.  Don’t try to pick the animal up.  If it’s a wild animal that must be killed, don’t damage the head.  Call an animal control or law enforcement officer to come get it.”

If any of your pets is not currently up to date on rabies vaccine, please contact your family veterinarian.  In conjunction with local veterinarians, the Humane Society of Culpeper offers a year-round rabies vaccine voucher program and periodically sponsors low-cost rabies vaccine clinics.  The Culpeper County Animal Shelter also partners with local veterinarians to provide low-cost rabies vaccine clinics approximately twice a year.

There are also now non-adjuvanted rabies vaccines available for cats. Adjuvants are additives that attract the attention of the immune system to the proteins in a vaccine. Since they cause inflammation, there is concern that adjuvants may add to the risk of a certain kind of cancer in cats, called fibrosarcoma. The PureVax brand of vaccines allows veterinarians to protect cats against rabies without injecting adjuvants. To prevent “sticker-shock,” I should mention that the tree-year version costs about three times more than an older, adjuvanted vaccine. Please contact your veterinarian to discuss the pros and cons of using the newer vaccine for your cat.