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Public Health Column for the Times-News

Learning the hard way about rabies vaccinations

Published: Wednesday, May 6, 2015

By KIMBERLY HORTON
Health Department columnist

Sometimes I learn the hard way. A good example is the time I brought home a stray cat after spending Thanksgiving with family in South Carolina.

That was my first mistake (some might think), but this especially beautiful and charming cat was homeless. To my credit, when I returned home I called my vet for the first available appointment time. The vet checked him over and then vaccinated our new feline against rabies. By the way, we named this white and black long-haired cat Skunk (second mistake) because of his stripes.

Always the responsible pet owner, I knew Skunk needed the rabies vaccine for his protection. North Carolina does also have a law that requires a rabies vaccine for all dogs, cats and ferrets four months of age or older. An animal receiving its first dose of rabies vaccine is not protected until at least 28 days after the vaccine is given, and is treated as unvaccinated until that time. I didn’t know this, and thought that Skunk was fully protected from rabies (third mistake).

Two weeks after his rabies vaccine, Skunk saw another cat through our window, and in an attempt to attack the tortoiseshell intruder, he struggled to jump out of my husband’s arms and in the process bit his hand. I knew that bites (especially from cats) could be serious, so I drove my husband to an urgent care facility to have his hand examined.

After the doctor treated his hand, it didn’t take long for an officer to appear to take a report about the incident. It was then that I learned that a physician treating an animal bite must report the incident to Animal Services.

Next I heard the word “quarantine” and learned that since it had been less than 28 days since Skunk (whose name I had since changed to Scout — fourth mistake) had received the rabies vaccine, he was considered unprotected. That meant he had to be confined for 10 days to see if he developed any rabies symptoms.

Fortunately for us, Scout never developed any symptoms, and my husband’s hand healed. Perhaps the most difficult part of the whole ordeal was keeping all of the officials involved straight about which animal we were talking about. Some thought a skunk had attacked my husband.

So what did I learn? Obviously a lot, but there’s even more to know about the rabies vaccine.

In general, after your pet’s first rabies vaccine, the following vaccine is valid for a three-year period. And since your pet had been previously vaccinated, it is considered protected immediately upon receiving the vaccine. The date of vaccination is important, too. The next rabies vaccine should be given on or before the due date on your pet’s rabies certificate. It’s crucial to keep the rabies certificate in a readily available place so you can prove your pet has been vaccinated. Your dog or cat must wear the rabies tag whenever it’s away from your home.

Why are the details important? Consider the consequences:

  • If you wait to get the rabies booster — even for one day — your pet will not be considered protected or vaccinated. An out-of-date rabies vaccine could be trouble for your pet if there’s a current rabies outbreak or a suspected rabies case.

  • Sadly, if an unvaccinated pet, or a pet whose vaccination has expired, has contact with a rabid animal, it must be euthanized immediately or confined (quarantined) for six months. The quarantine ensures that the animal is not going to develop rabies as a result of the exposure. If quarantined, the owner is responsible for the cost, which gets very expensive, whether boarding with a vet or at the Animal Shelter.

  • If your vaccinated pet has contact with a rabid animal, do not touch your pet, because infected saliva could be on its fur. Call your vet to have your pet re-vaccinated within five days (120 hours of the exposure). If you don’t revaccinate, then your pet will be considered unvaccinated.

  • If your pet is found roaming and bites someone, it could be euthanized 72 hours after the bite if you can’t be located to prove vaccination. Make sure your pet is wearing the required rabies tag and other ID tags. Also consider a microchip for your pet.

Despite the progress made in reducing the number of rabies-related deaths in the United States, rabies hasn’t gone away, particularly in the wildlife population. In the pet population, cats have become the most identified domestic animal carrying rabies.

The North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health documented 352 cases of rabies in 2014. Last year, Henderson County had two documented cases. Already this year, I’ve read about rabies in Davidson, Orange, Catawba and Cumberland counties, and next door in Buncombe County.

Combatting rabies is not cheap. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that every year 40,000 people in the U.S. receive a series of shots known as post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) due to potential exposure to rabies. The U.S. public health cost associated with rabies is more than $300 million a year.

One way our county battles rabies is through offering low-cost rabies clinics each year. Henderson County Animal Services partners with veterinary practices to schedule clinics the first full week in March for cats and the first full week in May for dogs. Tomorrow is the last day for the dog clinic, so call a participating vet to make an appointment if interested. Even indoor pets or pets that go out occasionally should be vaccinated.

The rabies vaccine is inexpensive yet highly effective. It’s the only way to keep your pets safe from rabies. Don’t delay.


Kimberly Horton is the communications manager at the Henderson County Department of Public Health. She can be reached at khorton@hendersoncountync.org.

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