Rabies is not usually the first thing that comes to mind when people think of public health issues. In the United States the threat of the disease has been greatly reduced over the years due to successful public health efforts. However, it is by no means eradicated. Each year about 40,000 Americans receive post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) shots because of possible rabies exposure, and one or two people will die from the disease. Altogether, the disease costs $300 million annually in this country. The good news is that it is entirely preventable and progress is being made each year. World Rabies Day was created in 2007 to draw attention both to the danger of rabies and the progress that has been made in bringing it under control in the United States and around the globe.
In 2013 there was a 4.8% decrease in rabies cases from the previous year and canine rabies has been almost entirely eradicated in the United States. Domestic animals now make up only eight percent of all cases nationwide. Cats are actually the greatest domestic animal threat, making up 53% of all domestic animal cases. Responsible pet owners can continue to help make that number drop by taking a few simple steps to keep their pets safe and healthy.
- Bring your dog or cat to a veterinarian each year to be sure they are up-to-date on their rabies vaccination. Dogs and cats that have potentially been exposed to rabies and are not up-to-date on their vaccination will need to be quarantined for six months or put down, so please vaccinate your pet!
- If your pet is not spayed or neutered, consider doing so. Spaying and neutering helps to reduce the number of stray dogs and cats, which are at high risk of contracting and spreading rabies.
Besides protecting your pets, take steps to protect yourself and your family too. If you have children, teach them to never handle wild or unfamiliar animals, even if the animal looks friendly. Keep food or water inside for your pets since the food and water kept outside could attract wild animals in your area. Always keep your garbage can securely covered as well. The best way to protect yourself might also be the most obvious – stay away from unfamiliar animals, including dogs and cats that you do not know, and do not attempt to feed, pet, or pick them up.
The vast majority of rabies cases involve wildlife, with raccoons, bats, skunks, and foxes being the primary culprits. In Washington, bats have been the only wild animal to carry rabies since the 1920s. Bats are very beneficial to us because they eat many insects. But bats can be a hazard when they mistakenly end up in our homes. If you have a bat in your house, do your best to safely capture or contain it and call your local public health department; we may want to test the bat to make sure you or your family were not exposed to rabies.
Outside of Washington, bats and skunks are responsible for most rabies cases. Many different types of animals can be infected, however, and if you encounter any animal acting strangely or displaying any of the following signs of possible rabies infection, please contact animal control as soon as possible.
- General sickly appearance
- Significant saliva or drooling
- Problems swallowing
- Difficulty moving or paralysis
- Biting at everything
- Appearing more tame than you would expect
When traveling, especially internationally, take any animal bite very seriously and seek medical attention. Talk with your health care provider about travel-related vaccinations before you leave and see if rabies vaccine would be advised.
Together, public health professionals, veterinarians, and YOU can continue to take steps to reduce the threat of rabies and keep ourselves, our pets, and our families healthy and safe!