One of my favorite movies as a kid was “Old Yeller”. I am not even sure why, as I always cried at the end, but I loved it none the less. Each time I saw the movie I was fascinated by the developing relationship between the boy and the dog, then just as the relationship was cemented “Old Yeller” developed rabies and the relationship had a violent dramatic end. “Old Yeller” came suddenly back to my mind this year as one of our clients came into our veterinary office last month to have his dogs vaccinated. He asked why we were still recommending vaccines for dogs. As I looked quizzically at him he continued and said that from an internet search he learned that there was no longer a need to vaccinate dogs for rabies. I have seen a lot of misinformation on the internet but even I was surprised by this. Rabies is one of the most dreaded diseases in human history. It is a viral disease that can infect any mammal and is always fatal once clinical signs have developed. The good news is that even though rabies decidedly fatal, it is almost completely preventable through proper vaccination.
The most common source of infection is in saliva, through the bite of an infected animal. After a bite the virus begins to migrate up the nerves, to the spinal cord and brain where it begins to replicate. The virus then radiates to other nerves including those that supply the salivary glands. It is then secreted in the saliva allowing the animal to spread rabies to a new victim.
Among mammals, humans are one of the one of the most susceptible species to rabies infection. There are thousands of human deaths each year in developing countries were few dogs and cats are vaccinated. Where appropriate vaccination protocols are followed however, human fatalities are dramatically decreased.
Rabies is alive and well in the United States and is primarily maintained in the wild, by animals such as foxes, coyotes, skunks, raccoons and bats. It is my opinion that we will never eradicate the disease because it has so many natural reservoirs. Merial has developed an oral vaccine (RABORAL V-RG®) approved for immunization of raccoons and coyotes. This important tool in the control of rabies will help control rabies in these species but will not eliminate the need to vaccinate domestic animals.
In the event that a bite occurs, by any animal, the wound should be thoroughly cleaned. Cleaning will help remove bacteria and rabies virus. It is important to report any bite to the public health authorities and to your physician. You should also contact your veterinarian to handle submission of animals for rabies testing, if needed. The final decision to initiate rabies prophylaxis for humans is always up to the physician and public health authorities.
It is too late for “Old Yeller” but not for your dog or cat. Please don’t neglect vaccinating for this important and preventable disease.