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Public Health Column for the Times-News

Board of Health to consider new rabies control measures

Published: Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Times-News Columnist

You can count on hearing about rabies every year — whether it's a reminder about having your pet vaccinated or a news story about a rabid animal.

Only six months ago in May, the N.C. State Laboratory of Public Health confirmed two cases of rabies in raccoons in Henderson County. In one case, the dog affected was current on its vaccine, but in the second event, three exposed dogs had to be euthanized.

The circumstances usually involve a raccoon, but it could be a skunk, a fox, a coyote, a wolf, a groundhog, a beaver or a bat. The rabies virus could infect a cow, a horse or a beloved pet. And if a person is exposed to a rabid animal, then rabies post-exposure prophylaxis is required to save his or her life. But no matter the animal or person, the risk of rabies in the mammal population each year is a given, and it's a deadly viral disease with no cure.

It's likely, however, that if you've never experienced a rabies event, you're unaware of the financial and emotional cost. Under current law, if your pet has never been vaccinated against rabies and is bitten by an animal that is or might be rabid, the pet owner is required to either quarantine the pet for six months or euthanize it. Even if your pet is one day overdue on its rabies vaccine booster, under current law, the same consequences apply.

The cost either way is paid by the pet owner and it's not cheap. An estimate to board an animal for six months could cost up to $3,600; euthanasia could cost $150. I would guess that in most cases, the quarantine cost is prohibitive for the pet owner. And the only other option — euthanasia of the pet — delivers a devastating emotional blow.

"These are difficult situations for all involved, and it's very painful to speak to the pet owner about what now must happen," said Renee Ledford, communicable disease nurse. "But rabies is deadly, and a pet that's been exposed can now infect the owner who loves it the most."

North Carolina's rabies laws conform to recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Association of Public Health Veterinarians' (NASPHV) Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control. The law requires that all owned dogs, cats and ferrets must be vaccinated against rabies by four months of age. One shot is not enough; rabies vaccinations must be kept current.

On March 1, 2016, new national guidance for post-exposure management of dogs and cats was published by NASPHV in the Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control, 2016. The North Carolina Division of Public Health proposed legislation for the 2016 short session of the General Assembly that would have amended current law to adopt these recommendations, but the proposal was never introduced as a bill.

Now local boards of health who want to use these updated rabies control measures must adopt a rule to give the local health director legal authority to implement the recommendations. The Henderson County Board of Health has called for a public hearing on Tuesday to consider adopting such a proposed rule.

If the rule is adopted, these new control measures would likely result in fewer dogs and cats euthanized and shorter and fewer quarantine periods for pets exposed to rabies but not current on their rabies vaccine. For animal owners, these changes represent significant emotional and financial benefits.

The Board of Health will consider the rule adoption at their regular monthly meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the classroom at the Department of Public Health, 1200 Spartanburg Highway. (If attending, use the Immunization Clinic entrance to access the classroom.)

Interested citizens may comment during the hearing. To review information prior to the hearing, packets are available at the front desk of the Health Department; or download the packet by clicking on the Board of Health link at hendersoncountync.org/health.

Whatever the outcome of the hearing, it doesn't lessen the importance and responsibility of pet owners to vaccinate their pets against rabies and keep the vaccinations current. There are other steps to take for our safety:

  • Keep pets inside. Supervise pets outside and keep dogs on a leash.
  • Consider keeping your cat inside. In North Carolina and across the United States, the domestic animal that is most commonly infected with rabies is the cat. Cats that are kept outside unsupervised may prey on wildlife that are infected with rabies.
  • Do not feed pets outside. Pet food attracts wildlife.
  • Never try to approach, handle, feed or rescue wild animals including feral cats or feral dogs.
  • Secure garbage cans with wildlife-proof lids.

Most households in the United States have at least one pet, and the reasons are many. Your dog's over-the-top welcome when you come home. The relaxation you feel as you stroke your purring cat. The health and social benefits for you from your dog's required daily walk. The comfort received and empathy learned as your child takes care of a pet. The automatic floor vacuum for dropped food during Thanksgiving dinner.

Pets are blessings to be thankful for — especially this time of year. Keep them safe and keep their rabies vaccine current.

Kim 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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