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FOR RELEASE: May 22, 2001
CONTACT: Dick Gunn
405/271-5601

Rabies Vaccination of Animals Provides Barrier to Protect People

What's the best piece of insurance an animal owner can purchase to protect his or her family from rabies? Answer: regular rabies vaccinations. State health officials say a recent case of a rabid dog illustrates this point well.

Last month in Pittsburg County, a family noticed that their 8-month-old puppy was unresponsive to commands, and was circling and pressing against the fence. Three weeks earlier, the puppy had killed a skunk that had forced its way into the dog pen. The puppy's illness quickly worsened and it died two days after the family noticed its strange behavior. Fortunately, the owners contacted their veterinarian, who recommended submitting the dog's brain tissue to the Oklahoma State Department of Health's Public Health Laboratory for rabies testing. Two days later the Oklahoma State Department of Health notified the family that the rabies test was positive. Since four family members had contact with the dog's saliva immediately prior to the dog's illness, they were advised to receive rabies post-exposure immunizations.

Animal rabies is not unusual in Oklahoma. Thus far this year, there have been 36 cases of animal rabies reported statewide. These include 29 skunks, four cattle, one horse and two dogs. Although greater than 70 percent of the rabies cases in Oklahoma occur in skunks, most of the human exposure to rabies results from contact to livestock or pets that develop rabies disease. Vaccinating family pets, horses, and valuable livestock provides a reliable barrier of protection between wildlife rabies and human exposure.

In the case of the rabid puppy, there were two possible ways that the event could have been prevented. First and most simply, taking the puppy to a veterinarian for a rabies shot when the puppy was between 3 to 4 months of age would have protected him against rabies when he tangled with the rabid skunk. The second opportunity for prevention was when the skunk was found dead in the puppy's pen. Typical behavior for a rabid skunk is to force its way into a doghouse or kennel to attack another animal or entire litter. If the event had been reported to public health specialists, rabies testing of the skunk would have been urged. Upon receipt of a positive rabies test on the skunk, the family would have been given the option of either euthanizing the exposed puppy or placing the puppy in a six-month quarantine at a veterinary hospital. Although this is a difficult and often heart-wrenching decision for the animal owner, it protects the family from undergoing costly and uncomfortable medical treatment.

There is a clear advantage for pets and pet owners when the animal is currently vaccinated at the time of exposure to a rabid animal. Exposed vaccinated animals are immediately re-vaccinated and then observed closely at home for 45 days. This is in contrast to pets that are not vaccinated or overdue on their rabies vaccination at the time of physical contact with a rabid animal. The exposed unvaccinated animal must be either euthanized or quarantined at a veterinary hospital for six months in order to protect human health.

Oklahoma rules and regulations require that dogs, cats, and ferrets be vaccinated against rabies by a veterinarian by the time the animal is 4 months of age. The interval between rabies vaccinations and boosters will depend upon the age of the animal, type of vaccine administered, and city licensing codes. Rabies vaccines labeled for use in horses, sheep, and cattle are also available and recommended for show animals and all valuable breeding stock. For information on rabies boosters for your animals, it is best to consult with your veterinarian.

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