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Rabies...Don't Let Your Guard Down

By Dr. Bob Encinosa

Rabies is one of those diseases that always lurks just below the radar. Out of sight and out of mind most of the time. However, the recent human exposures in North Tampa, resulting from a rabid feral cat, should be a reminder that this disease is always out there, and always a threat to our pets, our families and our friends.

Rabies is the reason that local animal control agencies were formed years ago, and strict rabies control laws have made the disease an uncommon occurrence. But, however uncommon, once the symptoms of rabies become apparent, there is little that can be done to save animal or man. The disease is essentially 100% fatal and the course of the disease is terrifying.

As wildlife becomes more tolerant of civilization, and in some cases, even lured by human activities, the threat of a rabies outbreak increases. In Florida, raccoons, foxes, bats and other wild animals that can live in close proximity to people, are an ever- present threat, and serve as a reservoir of the virus. More recently, the rapidly expanding coyote population in Florida promises to play an increasing role in the spread of rabies.

Rabies is also one of the main reasons that we have to be very careful whenever and wherever feral cat colonies are established. Even though many (hopefully most) cats released into feral cat colonies are vaccinated against rabies, these vaccines don’t last forever. Cats released into these colonies should always be micro-chipped so that they can be permanently identified and recaptured at the appropriate intervals to be revaccinated against rabies. Unfortunately, this is rarely done. There is also the commonly held misconception that a cat vaccinated with a 3-year rabies vaccination is protected for three years. In reality, these cats must first be vaccinated against rabies (with a 1-year or a 3-year vaccine) and then revaccinated with a 3- year rabies vaccine one year later to provide three years of protection. This is almost never done. Now, combine that with the fact that feeding cats in these colonies also draws in raccoons, foxes and other cats that could be carrying rabies and you have the makings of a potential nightmare. Rabies vaccines, when done correctly, are virtually 100% effective at preventing the spread of rabies. That is the key. They must be administered correctly.

Whenever a person is bitten by a potentially rabid animal, recognition of the potential danger is the key. If the attacking animal can be captured, tested immediately, and tests negative for rabies, then the post-exposure series of inoculations for the person bitten can be avoided. If the attacking animal cannot be captured and tested, or if it tests positive for rabies, the bitten person must receive the inoculations. Fortunately, these inoculations are not as scary as they used to be. Five intramuscular injections (no longer in the abdomen) are virtually 100% effective at preventing the development of rabies.

So…… just be careful and aware of the risk.