Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
You may have read a recent news report of a Mecklenburg County puppy quarantined for 6 months after possible exposure to a bat. Did you wonder why the quarantine was so long?
This is the first of 2 posts about rabies laws in North Carolina. This article covers background information about rabies: the reasons for the laws. The second article will discuss NC rabies regulations and what they mean for your pets (preview: vaccinate your indoor cats).
Why rabies vaccination is mandated by law
Rabies is caused by a virus transmitted between animals and people. It is almost always fatal once symptoms begin, but it can be prevented with vaccination.
Rabies kills an estimated 59,000 people worldwide every year. Nearly all of these deaths are caused by exposure to rabid domestic dogs. Most deaths occur in areas of Asia and Africa where access to vaccination is limited.
Compare that statistic with the current situation in the United States. In this country rabies kills only 1 or 2 people annually, the dog variant of the rabies virus has been eliminated, and the rabies reservoir species are wild animals. Before rabies control programs were introduced, more than 100 people in the United States died from rabies each year.
The conclusion is simple: rabies control programs save lives.
Rabies in North Carolina
Rabies is still a real risk in the United States. Thousands of wild animals (most often bats, raccoons, and skunks) test positive for rabies each year. The most commonly infected domestic animals are cats, followed by cows and dogs.
In 2016, 251 animals tested positive for rabies in North Carolina. In Mecklenburg County, 19 animals tested positive, the highest number of any NC county. Nine animals tested positive in Cabarrus County. Nearly half of the rabies-positive animals in North Carolina in 2016 were raccoons. The others, in descending order, were foxes, skunks, bats, cats, cows, dogs, beavers (Mecklenburg had 1 of the 2 rabid beavers in the state), and a deer. Other fascinating (to me) rabies statistics are available on the NC Department of Health and Human Services website.
The path of rabies infection
Rabies is transmitted through saliva and nervous tissue, such as brain. It usually enters the body through a bite wound but can also enter through broken skin or mucous membranes (nose, mouth, or eyes).
After rabies virus enters the body, it travels through the nerves to the brain. This process can take several months. During this incubation period, the exposed animal has no symptoms of infection.
Once the virus reaches the brain, it multiplies and moves to the salivary glands. At this point the animal can transmit rabies to another animal. Virus multiplication in the brain causes brain inflammation, leading to signs of rabies. Death occurs within about 7 days.
Rabies virus tests in animals are performed on brain tissue. For this reason, rabies testing in animals requires euthanasia.
To sum up: An animal exposed to rabies might not show signs of infection for many months and cannot be tested for rabies while it is alive. An animal that is capable of transmitting rabies will show signs of infection within a few days and will be dead within about a week.
September 15, 2017
Photo by Inge Wallumrød