Now and then, a story about rabies in humans or our pets hits the news. Most recently, there was a story about a man in British Columbia who died from a bat bite. So far, 25 people have died in Canada from rabies since 1924, most from bat bites. Why bats? Well, all mammals can carry rabies, but often people don’t always realize they have been bitten by a bat because their teeth are so small they often don’t leave much of a mark. It means that people may not seek treatment for possible rabies exposure the way they would if bitten by a dog. By the time symptoms start appearing, it is usually too late.
In the US (and some other countries as well), it can be very expensive to seek treatment for a possible rabies bite wound, but fortunately, in Canada, it is covered under our health care. If you think you may have been exposed, please see your doctor immediately – pretty much all rabies exposure in Canada is from wildlife-bats, raccoons and skunks are the main sources overall as well as an arctic fox in the north. Most people know horror stories of getting multiple needles in the abdomen; however, that is an old treatment. Now there is one injection around the bite wound area and then a series of vaccines. So the take-home message-if you think you’ve been exposed see your doctor, rabies is rare but not worth ignoring the risk!
For our animal friends, vaccination is very important. More and more wildlife is encroaching into our urban areas, and sick animals are more likely to be out during the day and be more bold and aggressive and are therefore more likely to interact with our pets. There is no test for rabies during the incubation period, which can last from weeks to months. The only definitive test for rabies is the submission of the brain for testing. Furthermore, if a pet is bitten by a rabid animal and is not vaccinated, there are no shots they can get, unlike humans.
The vaccines for rabies are safe and effective but need to be given by a veterinarian. There have been failures of the vaccine when given by owners or untrained people because of improper type, storage or improper administration. The vaccines are “killed,” so they can’t cause disease. They cause the body to produce antibodies against the virus. After getting the vaccine for two years in a row, most are good for three years. Vaccination is a low risk, inexpensive preventive for a very serious disease! Many people believe because they haven’t heard of an animal having rabies that it isn’t an issue, but we do not test sick wildlife for rabies very often, only if there has been an interaction with a human. It is a rare disease, and we would like to keep it that way!
Written by: Dr. Jessica O’Keefe, DVM