Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Mad Dog Season

by Sandra Parshall

"Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less." – Marie Curie

It’s mad dog season. Those of us who have been around a while may still think of the hot days of mid to late summer that way because we can remember distant childhoods when rabid dogs were still a very real danger.

If you were bitten by a rabid animal, you would almost certainly die. Before 1960, before widespread use of a reliable vaccine, more than 100 people died a slow, painful death of rabies every year in the U.S., most after being bitten by dogs. Countless dogs and cats succumbed to the disease.

Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control, most dogs, cats, ferrets, and livestock are vaccinated, and domestic animals account for only 8% of rabies cases in the U.S. The disease is three to four times more common in cats than dogs, because many people still don’t have the good sense to get their cats vaccinated. Even so, the infection rate is low, and your chances of encountering a rabid cat aren’t great. In 2010, the states reporting the highest number of domestic animals with rabies were Pennsylvania, with 72, and New York, with 51. Only two or three humans a year die of the disease in this country, compared to more 55,000 worldwide.

Veterinarians and others who work with animals, as well as travelers planning to visit countries with high rates of rabies, are vaccinated. People who have been bitten by a possibly rabid animal receive both vaccines and immune globulin. The dreaded 21 painful vaccinations in the stomach have been replaced by four ordinary injections in the arm. (Occasionally someone develops the disease yet survives without the injections, but that is extremely rare.)

Although rabies is uncontrolled in Third World countries, in the U.S. it is now primarily a disease of wild animals, and the incidence of infection is going down. The CDC reports that in 2010, the total number of rabies cases in the U.S. and Puerto Rico was 6,153 – an 8% decrease from 2009. Of all documented animal cases of rabies, 36.5% occurred in raccoons, 23.5% in skunks, 23.2% in bats, 7% in foxes, and 1.8% in all other species, including rabbits and rodents. This graphic from the CDC shows the highest concentrations of rabies in several species.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control graphic
Although rabies in wildlife is declining, the disease is now so firmly associated with wild animals that a lot of people are terrified of every living creature outside the safety of their homes. I’ve heard intelligent, well-educated adults make statements like, “All foxes are rabid” and “All bats carry rabies.” They believe the only good wild animal is a dead one.

Not true.

You don’t have to fear all wildlife. A crusade for the wholesale trapping and slaughter of wild animals that live near humans is unnecessary, inhumane, and foolish. Wild animals serve a purpose in the ecosystem. You may not believe this, but you need them in your world.

You just have to use common sense and be careful.

If you like to be outdoors at night, don’t forget that foxes, raccoons, bats, and opossums are nocturnal and will likely be all around you. You’re in their territory when you’re out at night, even if you’re in your own back yard, and you should act accordingly. Keep your distance, and make sure your dog does too. If you see an animal that is obviously sick, go inside immediately and call animal control.

Don’t touch a sick or dead animal. If you find a dead raccoon, fox, or other wild animal in your yard, call animal control to collect it and test it for rabies.

Have your chimney capped and seal any other opening that might allow wildlife to move into your house.

Have all the mammals that live with you as pets vaccinated against rabies. A rabies shot is just as vital for a cat or a ferret as for a dog, and in some states it’s required by law. If you keep livestock, have the animals vaccinated.

Don’t leave your dog outside, night or day, unsupervised. A wild animal sick with rabies may wander about in daylight, even if it is normally nocturnal. Don’t let your cat run free. Have your pets neutered and they will lose much of their desire to roam – and will be more content for it.

If you’re bitten by any animal, wash the wound with soap and water for at least five minutes, then seek medical care. Don’t argue with the doctor if he or she says you need a series of rabies vaccinations. Those shots might save your life.