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Vaccinating pets reduces rabies risk
MISSISSIPPI STATE – All species of mammals are susceptible to rabies, but pet owners can create a line of defense with a few simple precautions.
Bill Epperson, head of Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Pathobiology and Population Medicine, said the rabies virus is generally transmitted through the bite of an infected animal. One way to prevent or reduce the risk of rabies is to vaccinate pets.
“Vaccinating your pets serves as a barrier,” Epperson said. “Rabies is extremely rare in vaccinated animals. So vaccinating your pets protects your animals and your family.”
State Public Health Veterinarian Brigid Elchos said vaccination does more than protect animals from disease: it saves their lives.
“Rabies is a preventable, but largely untreatable, disease. Since rabies is a fatal disease, the recommendation for an unvaccinated pet that becomes exposed to a rabid animal is to put the pet to sleep,” Elchos said. “Dire consequences can be avoided by vaccinating domestic animals. It is a first line barrier to protecting the public from rabies.”
Elchos said state law requires pets to be vaccinated with a three-year immunity vaccine at 12 weeks of age and then receive a booster a year later. After the first year, animals need to be vaccinated at least every three years.
“The vaccine needs to be administered safely and accurately,” Elchos said. “That’s why it must be given by a veterinarian.”
Another strategy is to avoid contact with wildlife and unfamiliar animals.
“In some nearby states, raccoons are the primary reservoir for rabies,” Epperson said. “People need to report stray animals that appear to be abnormal.”
But rabid animals may behave differently than people expect.
“One of the myths that people associate with rabies is a furious, aggressive animal, perhaps foaming at the mouth,” Epperson said. “That can occur, but animals may also appear very depressed. Rabies is a disease of the central nervous system and usually shows up as weakness, paralysis or some changed behavior. It’s hard to diagnose rabies in live animals based solely on behavior.”
If a pet owner is concerned his or her animal has been bitten by a wild or domestic animal, the best-case scenario is that the pet has been vaccinated because it nearly eliminates the risk of infection. When a person is bitten, especially by a stray animal or wild animal, wash the wound well with soap and water, and consult a doctor immediately.
“Your doctor may work with the local public health official or veterinarian to plan your treatment,” Epperson said.
Mississippi has not had a diagnosed case of rabies in terrestrial mammals such as dogs, cats or raccoons in 40 years. While that is reassuring, he said residents need to be careful.
“The only reported rabies-positive animals in Mississippi right now are bats,” Epperson said. “But rabies can be found in both land animals and bats in the states that surround us.”
CVM’s diagnostic labs in Pearl and Starkville work with the Department of Health to conduct rabies tests on animals that have died or been euthanized. Rabies tests require brain tissue and cannot be conducted on live animals.
“In spring and summer, kids are out of school, people are outdoors more, and consequently, we have more inquiries about bites,” Epperson said. “If you have questions, you can give us a call or contact your local veterinarian.”
Contact: Dr. Bill Epperson, (662) 325-2827