Saturday, February 04, 2012

Pet rabies vaccination a matter of life and death

Recently, an animal control officer from the Sheriff's Office impounded an Australian cattle dog. This may seem unremarkable until you learn this dog was minding his own business in his own yard. You might ask why in the world an animal control officer would impound a dog who was not violating the leash law, had not bitten anyone, but was simply playing in his own yard.

The dog's name was Blue. Blue's transgression was that he was exposed to a skunk. According to state law, dogs and cats without current rabies vaccination exposed to a rabies suspect (wildlife) must be quarantined for 180 days.

Blue was alone in his yard when he encountered the skunk. It could have been a bat; it could have been a fox or a bobcat. It just happened to be a skunk. It is not known to what extent Blue was exposed - there were no obvious wounds - but he was close enough to get sprayed.

Rabies is an unforgiving disease, and there is no room for error. Sadly, Blue had never been vaccinated against rabies.

If the skunk had been captured, it could have been tested for rabies. However, the skunk left the area before the animal control officer arrived. The animal control officer was compelled by state statute to impound the dog for a 180-day quarantine at the owner's expense. Unfortunately, the owner could not afford to board his dog for that length of time. As a result, the Sheriff's Office ordered Blue euthanized and decapitated, and his head sent to the State Lab for rabies analysis. Horrific as this sounds it is the only known method for determining rabies outside of a costly quarantine.

This tragic end to a wonderful dog could have easily been avoided. If only Blue had been vaccinated against rabies, he would be playing in his yard today. Don't let Blue's tragic experience happen to your pet.

Rabies is a preventable viral disease most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal. The rabies virus attacks the central nervous system, causing encephalitis. It is always fatal once symptoms appear. Rabies can be prevented in people who have come into contact or have been bitten by wild animals through prompt administration of anti-rabies vaccine and rabies immune globulin. Hundreds of rabies post exposure prophylactic treatments are initiated annually in Arizona to prevent rabies from developing after exposure. Sadly, there is no such remedy for exposed dogs and cats.

In Arizona, the principal rabies hosts are bats, skunks and foxes. These animals carry their own distinct rabies virus variants or "strains." When rabies within these animal populations increases it can "spillover" into other mammal species, such as bobcats, coyotes, javelina, cats, dogs, horses, cows, etc. Every year, approximately 30 people are exposed to rabid animals in Arizona. People who are exposed must receive vaccine and anti-rabies serum treatment to prevent infection and death.

In Arizona, bats present the most common source of rabies exposures to humans because rabid bats often fall to the ground where they are easily accessible to people and pets. Bats are generally not aggressive. Exposure to rabid bats usually occurs when people pick up or handle a sick or dead bat. Other rabies exposures occur when people try to approach or feed wild animals, or in some cases, are attacked by rabid animals such as foxes, bobcats and skunks. Most rabies exposures can be avoided by simply leaving bats and other wild animals alone. The last documented human rabies death in Arizona was in 1981.

Other than avoiding wildlife, the best way to protect your family from rabies exposure is to vaccinate your pets before they encounter a wild animal and bring the disease into your home - where it can incubate for up to a year.

Don't gamble - vaccinate your pets today!

Ed Boks is the executive director of the Yavapai Humane Society. He can be reached at or by calling 445-2666, ext. 21.