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A Deadly Virus in Your Backyard

Author: Dr. Nicole Fenner, DVM

Did you know one of the deadliest viruses known could be lurking in your backyard?  It’s rabies! Of course, unless you live under a rock, you’ve certainly heard of it before.  But did you know that this disease is almost always fatal? The current treatment of rabies in humans is extremely time-sensitive; chances of survival are slim. As a matter of fact, according to the CDC fewer than 10 people have survived rabies infections. So be aware and understand this threat that could be as close as the woods in your neighborhood, the invader of your trashcan at night, or even your own pet.

Rabies is typically found in local wildlife. Raccoons are the number one carrier of rabies followed by bats, skunks, foxes, and even ground hogs. But why do we care if it is a virus carried by wildlife?  It’s because today people and wildlife collide more often than ever. Land development causes thousands of displaced animals to adapt to living closer to people. So, it hardly matters where you reside; you have to assume rabies is present in your environment.

Several recent cases of rabies have been reported in Anne Arundel County!  Do you have a dog or cat? If yes, then having them vaccinated against rabies is mandatory.  IT IS THE LAW!  Your life, the life of your pet, and the welfare of the community depend on this mandate.  It’s not safe to assume you or your pet won’t come in contact with the disease.

How many of your pets like to get in altercations with wild animals?  Did you know if your pet is unvaccinated for rabies and comes in contact with a known rabid animal, or even has a bite wound of unknown origin, euthanasia is recommended?  If you don’t euthanize your pet, you do have to quarantine them for a minimum of six months. Rabies poses a significant risk to humans.  If you cleaned your pet’s wounds or even came in contact with your pet after they were exposed to a rabid animal, you will need PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis).  This consists of 4 or 5 injections of anti-rabies antibodies, and it is the only treatment that gives you a chance at survival – if it is performed promptly.

So get your four-legged family member vaccinated for rabies. If you’re worried about the expense of vaccinating for rabies, there’s help. Due to the increase in rabies cases in Anne Arundel County, Animal Control offers rabies vaccine clinics on a weekly basis, and it is only $5.00 to get your dog or cat an updated rabies vaccine.  Often, a popular excuse I hear is, “My cat never goes outside, so it doesn’t need a rabies vaccine.”  Sadly, this is an inaccurate assumption.  For one, cats can escape.  A cat that has spent most of its life indoors might decide one day to explore the great outdoors. Need another reason?  Bats can get into your house and nothing provides more enjoyment for your cat then putting those hunting skills to use.  Remember the course of action for an unvaccinated animal?  Death or six-month quarantine: neither of which is appealing.  Another common excuse is, “My pet had a rabies vaccine when it was younger, so it’s protected.” FALSE!  Generally, a rabies vaccine is administered around 3 months of age – 28 days later you can assume your pet is protected; however, the animal MUST have a booster exactly one year later (regardless of the type of vaccine used) and at that point the animal is considered fully vaccinated for 1-3 years depending on county/state law and which vaccine was given.  As soon as the 1-3 years expire, the animal once again will need to have the rabies vaccine booster. Failure to do so could result in the death of your pet or placement of your pet in a six-month quarantine. Get the picture?  See a pattern here?


 Other than making sure your pet is current on its rabies vaccine regimen, here are some other helpful tips for preventing a run-in with this deadly virus:
• Avoid wildlife and stray animals – do not feed, water, or handle them
• If wild or stray animals are injured or sick, call Animal Control for assistance – do not handle them.
• Equate wild animals with rabies, especially if they are acting strangely or outside in the daylight
• Educate your family on rabies prevention
• Do not try to make wildlife into pets
• Do not feed wild or stray animals – this involves not leaving trash or garbage lying around your yard
• Confine your pets to your yard and walk them on a leash

What do I mean when I say an animal is acting strangely? Rabies attacks the nervous system of mammals.  This includes humans, pets, wildlife, and livestock.  The rabies virus lives in the saliva of rabid animals.  Once a rabid animal bites, the rabies virus travels from the bite site via the nerves to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).  Rabies causes seizures, paralysis and death.  Once signs of rabies appear, death is likely imminent. Rabies is not only spread upon biting.  It can also be spread through scratches or wounds and mucous membranes (eyes, nose and mouth).  It can take several weeks to months before signs of rabies appear.  A change in normal behavior is the most consistent sign of rabies.   Clinical signs of rabies can range from irritable and aggressive to shy and unusually approachable.  Other signs to watch for according to Animal Control:

• Nocturnal animals active during the day
• Animals having difficulty walking
• Weakness, wobbling, paralysis
• Inability to eat or drink
• Drooling, foaming at the mouth
• Seizures

What is the most important reason to vaccinate your pet for rabies? If a vaccinated animal is exposed to a rabid animal, there is no requirement for euthanasia and no six-month quarantine.  Instead, your pet’s rabies vaccine is boostered and you observe your pet for a period of 45 days.  I hope you agree this protocol is best suited for you and your pet.

Worried your pet may have been bitten by a rabid animal?
• Report all animal bites to Anne Arundel County Police at 410-222-8610 or Annapolis City Police at 410-268-9000.  They will turn all reports over to Animal Control for investigation.
• If the animal is confined, dead, or still lurking in the area, Animal Control will respond to trap or collect the animal for testing as soon as possible.  Do not bury wild animals that have been killed by your pets, call Animal Control immediately.

Additional information can be found at:


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