A family adopts a dog with rabies. The story sparks a discussion on rabies disease and the value of vaccination.

dog with a fractured leg and her pup were found on the streets of Cairo, Egypt by a rescue organization.  Eager to see the dogs adopted, the organization forged a certificate of health and vaccination and shipped the two dogs, along with 7 other dogs and 27 cats, to an adoption center in the U.S. The dogs cleared customs at JFK and then were distributed to various adoption centers in the Northeast. The pup’s mother was sent to live with a foster family in Virginia, but shortly after arriving, began to salivate excessively and to show signs of paralysis.

Fortunately for the family, their vet astutely recognized the symptoms of rabies.  The typical protocol for patients suspected of rabies is confinement in quarantine, but given this dog’s advanced signs of the disease, the veterinarian and family decided together to euthanize the pet. The patient’s body was sent to the state lab for testing and was confirmed to be positive for rabies.  As for the puppy and the rest of the dogs that were shipped to the adoption centers, all were vaccinated and quarantined.

In falsifying the Egyptian pet’s vaccination records, the Cairo rescue organization had committed a costly, dangerous fraud.  Thirty people in Virginia alone were evaluated for rabies exposure, 18 of whom had to be vaccinated precautionarily against rabies.  The crime set off an international investigation involving state, federal and international border security and health agencies.  On the Egyptian side, the people responsible for falsifying the certificates were arrested, tried, and convicted.

Rabies In Humans

In developed countries like the U.S., where there is high compliance with rabies vaccinations for pets, we’ve lost touch with how bad a case of rabies can be, but only last year, a man in Salt Lake City died of the disease.  Gary Giles caught a bat that was inside his home and released it outside. Though he was not bitten by the animal, it is believed that he had enough contact with the saliva of the animal to become infected.  About 12 weeks later, the typical length of time it takes before patients begin to exhibit symptoms of infection, the man went to the emergency room complaining of neck and back pain.  Unaware that Giles was infected, the doctors sent him home with pain medication to treat what they believed was a pulled muscle, but Gile’s symptoms only got worse.  He experienced numbness in his hands and then difficulty breathing.  He returned to the emergency room and then was transferred to the intensive care ward at a nearby medical center.  There he died.

There are two versions of rabies, a paralytic version and a ‘furious’ form.  About 20 percent of people die of the paralytic form in which muscles are paralyzed and he or she dies of respiratory failure.  The remaining 80 of people (and animals) succumb to the ‘furious’ form in which they act aggressively and lash out unexplainably.  Other symptoms include insomnia, hallucinations, trouble swallowing, fear of water, confusion, convulsions, muscle spasms, anxiety, and excitation. Rabies is fatal nearly 100% of the time and has been called the most deadly virus on earth.

Health Certificates for Travel

At Rockland, we sign off on dozens of International and domestic travel certificates each year.  Every now and then, we’ll hear a client complain of the formality of having to get a perfectly healthy dog or cat examined by a veterinarian before travel.  After all, what’s the point?  What’s the likelihood that a Rockland dog or cat has rabies?  Well, to be frank, the chances that your dog or cat has rabies is exceedingly low, but interstate and international inspection of animals is critical to keeping our society safe and healthy.  Interstate border vigilance reduces the chances of widespread disease outbreaks, and when outbreaks do occur, the inspection records allow veterinarians to locate the source of the disease quickly and to respond effectively.

Dog and Human Rabies Infection Started After The Arrival of Europeans

As recently as the mid 1800’s, it was not uncommon for prairie Indian tribes to travel with as many as 1000 dogs whose purpose was to protect Indian settlements and pull load bearing sleds called travois. Yet none of the tens of thousands of dogs living in America are believed to have ever contracted rabies, nor does it appear that humans contracted the disease. Research shows that the rabies virus has been in the New World for at least 10,000 years, but at that time only infected bats and skunks.  It wasn’t until the introduction of the European dog into the Americas that rabies began to infect both dogs and humans.

European Dogs Carried More Infectious Form of Rabies

A strain of rabies that infected both dogs and humans had been in Europe for centuries and when dogs were brought to America, they brought this new, more infectious strain with them.  Additionally, European dogs started to interbreed with American dogs and they passed on their genetic susceptibility to rabies to their offspring.  Interestingly, rabies infected dogs only started to come to the New World after the 17th Century, when sailing vessels got faster and the boats were able to make the voyage in a few weeks. Before then, when rabies infected dogs traveled with explorers, they developed symptoms during the voyage and were either killed or died.

Approximately 350 Dog and Cat Rabies Deaths Every Year

According to the CDC, domestic dogs are no longer a reservoir for rabies thanks to good veterinary care and pet owner compliance with rabies vaccination.  That’s not to say that rabies infections do not occur in dogs and cats.  About 60-70 dogs and 250 cats test positive for rabies annually across the U.S.!  In almost all cases the victims are unvaccinated and contract the disease from infected wildlife.

15 Million People Treated Annually For Rabies Exposure Worldwide

Globally the situation in much worse. Underdeveloped countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific have deep pockets of endemic areas.  The prevalence of unvaccinated populations of feral dogs, a lack of access to veterinary care, and poverty keep hot beds of rabies infection very much alive. In countries such as these, human infection is not uncommon. About 59,000 people die of rabies annually around the globe, but people treated for post exposure is exceedingly high.  Around 15 million people around the world are treated annually for post exposure to rabies.

Efforts To Eradicate Rabies Globally

To curb the toll on human lives and the huge cost of the risk to human health, the Global Alliance for Rabies Control has set its sights on vaccinating more domestic and feral dogs. As the group’s scientific director, Louise Taylor says,  “It’s the only way you’re going to eliminate the problem. To rid the world’s canine population of the virus, we aim to immunize at least 70% of dogs for several years. After that level, we should be able to keep outbreaks at bay.”

Rabies Vaccines Work!

The strategy has already proven effective in countries like Sri Lanka where human deaths due to rabies dropped precipitously after an aggressive stray dog vaccination program was put in place.  In 1970s, when virtually no dogs were vaccinated against rabies, there were close to 400 human rabies deaths a year in the small country, but after an aggressive campaign to vaccinate wild dogs, the human death rate plummeted to under 20 deaths per year.  It has been a respectable rate of progress that health officials continue to try to improve upon.

Wild Animals Vaccinated With Bait

Most stray or feral dogs (as well as wildlife) are vaccinated against rabies in two ways.  In some cases, trap and release programs serve to both sterilize strays and vaccinate them for rabies with injections of the attenuated or killed virus.  In other cases, oral vaccines are dropped as bait for dogs or wildlife to consume.

Dislike Of Dogs Is A Barrier To Vaccination

In theory, the near eradication of rabies worldwide is possible, but funding, a lack of education, and in some places, a disrespect for dogs and cats, lead to a continued reservoir of the disease in feral populations. Most third world countries simply don’t care enough about dogs and cats to have them vaccinated, can’t access vaccination for their pets, or can’t afford it.