Rabies: The Human/Pet Health Connection

A confirmed case of rabies in Missouri that resulted in the euthanizing of eight dogs and exposed 32 people to the illness points to the close relationship between human health and that of our pets along with the value of rabies vaccinations for those pets.

Fortunately, the people exposed to rabies in Missouri will receive post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) injections to protect them from developing rabies – a virus that once symptoms begin is fatal 99 percent of the time. In parts of Africa and Asia, where rabies is a widespread public health problem causing the deaths of thousands of people each year, the cost of PEP treatment is prohibitive meaning people die from the virus rather than being able to afford the treatment needed to spare them from what is sometimes referred to as the most deadly virus in the world.

A single rabies vaccination would have spared the life of the eight dogs in this Missouri situation and spared 32 people from PEP injections.

Pet owners in the United States and other industrialized countries where rabies is controlled sometimes wonder if the state-mandated rabies vaccinations for dogs and recommended for cats and ferrets are really necessary. Although such thinking is understandable given the fact that reports of cases of rabies are few and far between in the United States and out countries, those reduced numbers of rabies cases is due in large part to the use of the rabies vaccine in pets.

Rabies in the United States

When rabies is reported in the United States, more than 90 percent of the time it is in wild animals – carnivores and bats, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This represents a vast change in that prior to 1960, the majority of confirmed rabies cases in the United States was in domesticated animals.

In 19th century America, 100 or more people died annually from rabies; since the 1990s, that number now averages one to two deaths each year from rabies – and those are in people who were unknowingly exposed to the virus who failed to seek medical attention for the post-exposure prophylaxis of the illness.

The vast majority of people who are exposed to the rabies virus are exposed due to a bite or scratch received from an infected dog. The animal carries the virus in its saliva. Contact with the infected saliva in broken skin, either in the form of a cut or through a bite or scratch from the animal transfers the virus to the human. In the past, when people had more contact with animals in the wild, human exposure to rabies was more often related to that contact. Now, our domesticated animals serve as the mid-point in that chain of contact and exposure.

Vaccinating domestic mammals for rabies breaks the chain of contact and human exposure to the deadly virus while also protecting the domestic animals.

Rabies Facts from Around the World

It is the success of rabies control programs, most notably that of vaccinating domestic animals, that gives Americans and others the false sense that the virus has been all but eradicated. In other parts of the world, most notably in Africa and Asia, rabies claims the lives of tens of thousands of people as reported by the World Health Organization (WHO).  Even this large number of deaths attributed to rabies is likely to be falsely low because many of its victims are the poor and vulnerable, living in remote areas, where reports and data of illness and death are not reported with any regularity.

Again, dogs are the main source of rabies transmission to humans – 99 percent of rabies transmission to human worldwide is through dogs who have become infected with the virus.

In some areas of the world, not only are dogs vaccinated against rabies, but due to the high risk of human exposure, people are also vaccinated against the virus. Rabies vaccination is recommended for people planning to travel to some parts of the world and for those in professions at risk of being exposed to dog or other animal bites.

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