Rabies Vaccination – Why is it so important?

By Sharon Billings, CVT
Associate Veterinary Information Specialist at Pet Poison Helpline®

Perhaps you’ve wondered why your local government requires you to provide proof of up-to-date rabies vaccination when licensing your pet.  Or maybe you’ve wondered why your veterinarian always has this item at the top of the to-do list when your pet visits the clinic for a wellness examination.  Preventing the spread of rabies is so important the disease has a special day associated with it!  Established in 2007, World Rabies Day aims to raise awareness about the public health impact of human and animal rabies.  So, we’re spotlighting the importance of keeping up to date with rabies vaccination for companion animals.

Why is it important to know about rabies?

On their website, the American Veterinary Medical Associate (AVMA) states:  “Rabies remains a major concern worldwide, killing more than 55,000 people every year.  In the United States, one to two people die annually and there were more than 6,000 reported cases of animal rabies in the U.S. in 2012.”

What is rabies?

A viral disease affecting the central nervous system, rabies is transmitted by saliva (typically a bite) from an infected animal.  The disease is preventable through vaccination.  It can also be treated prophylactically immediately following an exposure but once an exposed animal develops symptoms of rabies, the disease is nearly always fatal.

Which animals are affected?

All species of mammals are susceptible to the virus.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the vast majority of cases reported to them involve wild animals such as raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes.  Domestic animals (such as cats and dogs) and humans are also susceptible to the virus.

What are the symptoms or rabies?

The disease progresses through distinct phases.

  1. The virus enters the body via a bite and begins to travel through the nerves to the brain. No symptoms are experienced during this incubation period which may last weeks to months and the affected animal cannot transmit the virus during this time.
  2. Once the virus reaches the brain, it multiplies rapidly causing inflammation in the brain. Following this, the virus begins to descend through the body traveling to the salivary glands and saliva.  This is the point when the animal can transmit the virus.  Early symptoms are flu-like:  general weakness or discomfort, fever, or headache.  There may also be discomfort, itching, or prickling sensation at the site of the bite.
  3. Within days, classic symptoms develop including: cerebral dysfunction, anxiety, confusion, agitation, abnormal behavior, and muscle paralysis.  Once these symptoms develop, the disease is nearly always fatal.
  4. Death occurs when the virus reaches and paralyzes the diaphragm, making normal lung function impossible.

Why is rabies sometimes called hydrophobia?

Rabies was once known as “hydrophobia” because victims appeared to be frightened of water.  We now know that the disease can cause muscles, including throat muscles, to become paralyzed.  Since swallowing saliva is not possible this results in the disease’s characteristic drooling and/or foaming at the mouth and this may explain the aversion to water.

Scary and grim stuff, wouldn’t you agree?  It’s easy to understand why most municipalities require licensing of companion animals to ensure they are up to date on their rabies vaccines.  Sadly, we can’t do much to protect non-domesticated (wild) animals but we can stop rabies from affecting companion animals and the humans who love and care for them.  A simple, inexpensive vaccine protects your furry family members and, in turn, protects you and the rest of your human family as well.

To close on a brighter note, here’s a “fun” fact:  those of us who work in the veterinary field are vaccinated for rabies (just like your cat and dog) to help protect us in case we are exposed by coming into contact with an unvaccinated animal.