Health officials fear 2013 could see increase in number of rabies cases

Posted on Monday, April 8, 2013 at 10:22 am

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (MoDHSS) and Lincoln County Health Department want to make you aware of an increase of rabies cases in wild and domestic animals in Missouri. As of Feb. 28 there have been five animals testing positive for rabies: skunks in Douglas, Howell, and St. Genevieve Counties; a horse in Wayne County, and a puppy in Oregon County. Neither the horse nor puppy were immunized against rabies.

Rabies can be found in any county in Missouri, and may migrate as wild animals travel. Over the past 10 years Missouri has averaged more than 50 animals testing positive for rabies annually. This number includes only animals tested due to biting either a person or pet. Most of the animals found to be rabid during this time period were bats and skunks, but the total does include cats, dogs, cattle, horses, a fox, and a goat.

What is Rabies? Rabies is a disease of mammals and is transmitted primarily through bites. Vaccinated pets provide a barrier between those animals and families, and public health experts want pet owners to know that by protecting your pets you also are protecting your loved ones.

The first sign of rabies in animals is often a change in temperament or behavior, which progresses to a “furious” or aggressive stage, then to a final stage of partial or complete paralysis, at which time excessive salivation may occur (frothing at the mouth). This characteristic can be observed in animals dying from other causes as well. An animal may not go through all stages, but death is virtually certain within ten days of onset of symptoms. A dog, cat, or ferret may be infectious through saliva for several days before it develops any outward signs of disease.

What to do if you are bitten?

Anyone who has been bitten by an animal, particularly a stray or wild animal, should wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water for 10 to 15 minutes. If possible without further injury, try to capture or confine the biting animal so that it can be quarantined or tested for rabies (depending upon the species of animal). If the animal is executed, avoid damaging the head since the brain must be in good condition to be tested for the rabies virus. Contact your physician to see if medical care (antibiotics, tetanus booster, etc.) is needed, and to have a rabies risk assessment done. Also contact your local health department or veterinarian if you need to send the animal for rabies testing.

Special attention should be paid to bites from bats since their small, needle-like teeth could result in a wound that goes unnoticed or is ignored. A very small percentage of bats have rabies but they are the leading cause of human rabies deaths. If a bat is found in your home contact your physician and local health department to determine if the bat should be tested and whether you need to seek medical attention. It is important not to release or kill the bat until after seeking such advice.

Anti-Rabies Regimen for People

The current series of shots is very effective if given soon after the exposure. The number of injections and side effects have been greatly reduced than the previous anti-rabies regimen. However, once symptoms begin, the shots are not effective and rabies is usually fatal; thus it is very important to seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Vaccination of Animals against Rabies

Rabies vaccines are licensed in the United States for use only in dogs, cats, ferrets, cattle, horses, and sheep. Dogs and cats should normally receive an initial rabies vaccination at three to four months of age, followed by a booster shot one year later, and then revaccinated as determined by your veterinarian. Many towns and cities have animal control ordinances that specify the age of initial vaccination as well as the frequency of booster doses. Lincoln County currently does not have an animal ordinance, though some municipalities (City of Troy, for example) do have their own animal regulations.

If a biting dog has proof of rabies vaccination given by a veterinarian, the physician would most likely not put the bite victim through the series of shots to prevent rabies. However, by Missouri statute and code, when an animal is immunized against rabies, the vaccine must be administered by a licensed veterinarian to be absolutely certain the vaccine was given properly.

Management of Pets Bitten by a Rabid Animal

Pet owners should be aware that if their dog or cat does not have a current rabies vaccination and is bitten by a rabid animal, the pet will either need to be euthanized or quarantined for six months at the owner’s expense at a veterinary facility or city/county animal impoundment facility, if one is available. There is no post-exposure treatment available for animals as there is for humans. In contrast, a dog or cat that is currently vaccinated and which is bitten by a rabid animal needs only a rabies booster shot followed by a 45-day home quarantine.

Community Prevention

• Ensure dogs, cats, and ferrets are up-to-date on rabies vaccinations at their veterinarian. Vaccinations are also available for horses, cattle, and sheep. · Keep pets under control; do not allow them to run loose.

• Avoid contact with stray pets and wild animals; do not keep wild animals or wild animal cross-breeds as pets.

• Report wild animals exhibiting unusual behavior or stray pets to animal control officials.

• Personal pets should not be handled without protection directly after being exposed to wildlife due to the potential for carrying residual saliva from the infected animal.

Missouri health officials urge pet owners to visit their veterinarians to update their pets’ rabies vaccinations; the threat of rabies is often as close as the skunk that wanders through the back yard!

Additional information pertaining to rabies can be found on the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services website at http://health.mo.gov/living/healthcondiseases/communicable/rabies/index.php, or call the Lincoln County Health Department at 636-528-6117.

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