If everything you know about rabies comes from watching reruns of “Old Yeller,” it’s time for a refresher course.
I was forced to learn more when a friend called me in distress last summer. She had been trapping feral cats for a spay-and-release program, when one ungrateful wild thing latched onto her finger, giving her one terrific bite before disappearing.
At first she didn’t think much about it. She washed her hands and put on a bandage. A lifelong cat lover, she had weathered her share of bites and scratches. But when she delivered the other captured cats to her local vet, they urged her to get to an emergency room right away.
Still unconvinced, she waited another day until her finger started to change color. When she finally got to a Sacramento hospital’s emergency department, she faced a decision. Rabies is fatal, so it is better to be safe than sorry – or in this case, possibly dead. So in the course of a week, she underwent a series of rabies shots – the first ones administered right into her damaged finger. I can’t repeat her description of the pain, so use your imagination.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year an estimated 40,000 persons receive a rabies preventive treatment called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) due to a potential exposure to rabies. And while most cases of rabies are found in wild animals, the majority of people in the United States receive PEP after close contact with a domestic animal.
Before my friend’s incident, I had only thought of rabies in the context of pet vaccinations, which seem due almost as often as taxes. But having your dogs and cats vaccinated against rabies, as required by law, is the best way to prevent the spread of the disease. Thanks to our vaccination laws, it is exposure to wild animals such as raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats that pose the largest threat in the U.S. A vaccinated pet that mixes it up with a skunk probably won’t bring the disease home to his owners. Your unvaccinated pet, however, if suspected of exposure to rabies, can be quarantined for six months, or even euthanized.
No one should take rabies lightly. It is a dangerous virus spread through the saliva of animals. All mammals, including humans, can get it. It is one of the few viruses that cross the boundary of species. And although it is rare for a human in the U.S. to die of rabies, it is a global health problem that kills more than 55,000 people worldwide every year.
How can you protect yourself and your family from rabies? In addition to vaccinating your pets, avoid contact with wild animals. If you are bitten, wash the wound well with soap and water and see your doctor. You may also be required to contact animal control.
My friend no longer traps feral cats. She has made a complete recovery, and her only reminder of her brush with death is when I ask if she’s wearing her rabies tags.
Marilyn Ranson is a public relations specialist with NorthBay Healthcare in Fairfield, which is a partner of the Solano Coalition for Better Health.