World Rabies Day is on September 28th, 2013. Started in 2007 by the Global Alliance for Rabies Control, it provides an opportunity to unite globally to help raise awareness of rabies prevention. This year’s theme is “Understand it to defeat it” and this blog aims to help you do just that by answering some questions we receive about rabies from our clients at the cat hospitals.
What is rabies and how is it spread?
Rabies is a viral disease that is most commonly spread through the saliva of an infected animal, usually through a bite. All mammals can be infected with rabies, and it is a zoonotic disease – it can be spread from animals to humans. Rabies is the deadliest disease on earth with a fatality rate approaching 100%. Once clinical symptoms appear, death is inevitable. Rabies is found on every continent except Antarctica.
Does rabies even exist in Canada?
According to 2012 Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) statistics, the Yukon and P.E.I. were the only two areas of Canada where no rabies cases were reported that year. In 2012, there were two confirmed cases of feline rabies – an unvaccinated cat in N.B. that bit its owner and died the next day and a stray cat in Ontario.
In North America, rabies is maintained in the wildlife population. The majority of confirmed cases are in bats, but the virus is also maintained in the skunk, fox, and raccoon populations. Vaccination programs have largely eliminated domestic dogs as a reservoir species, and rabies is reported more commonly in cats than in any other domestic animal.
What can be done to protect my cat against rabies?
Rabies is preventable – vaccinated animals are protected against the disease. In fact, vaccination of domestic animals is the most effective means of preventing rabies in people. Animal control and vaccination programs have led to a significant decrease in the prevalence of rabies in North America, with the number of human deaths due to rabies decreasing from more than 100 each year in the 1940’s, to a current average of 2-3 deaths each year.
Rabies vaccination for ALL cats is the law in Ontario, regardless of their lifestyle. Cats with regular access to the outdoors are at higher risk of being exposed to a rabid animal; and one of the most common questions we get is:
Why should I vaccinate my indoor cat for rabies?
Unfortunately, just because your cat stays indoors, it does not mean it will never be exposed to rabies. There is always the potential for escaping (this summer at Bytown Cat Hospital alone, we treated two cats that had escaped through the window from their 3rd and 7th story apartments) or for a previously indoor-only cat to be given access to the outdoors. There have also been numerous accounts of bats or raccoons entering houses.
The cost of rabies vaccination is included in the price of our annual wellness examination because we believe in the importance of a cat being protected against this deadly disease. Cats can transmit the disease after becoming infected; therefore rabies vaccination is not only important for the health of your cat, but also for the health of you and your family, and our veterinary staff. If your cat is infected with the virus and bites you – you could die.
Kittens can be vaccinated as early as 12 weeks of age. Revaccination is then required 1 year later, regardless of the age at which the cat was first vaccinated. Rabies vaccines provide immunity for either 1 year or 3 years. At the cat hospitals, we use a recombinant rabies vaccine which is given yearly, because it has fewer side effects than the 3 year vaccine. Your cat cannot get rabies from the rabies vaccination.
There is no treatment for rabies in animals. Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), a series of protective injections, is available for humans who have been potentially exposed to the rabies virus. Cat bite injuries to humans are a common reason for seeking post-exposure prophylaxis. PEP does not exist for animals; however, if you suspect your cat has been bitten by a wild animal you should phone your veterinarian, as a rabies vaccine booster may be recommended.
What are the symptoms of rabies?
The signs of rabies in cats can be nonspecific, and may be similar to other diseases. Any unexplained aggression or dramatic changes from normal behaviour should be considered suspicious. Once an animal is showing signs of the disease, death usually occurs in about 10 days. The typical incubation period, or time from infection to clinical signs, is about 2 months in cats – however, this can range from 2 weeks to longer than 1 year. It is important to notify your veterinarian if your cat has been bitten or has possibly been exposed to a potentially rabid animal, especially bats.
There is no test for rabies that can be performed before the animal dies or is euthanized. Brain tissue must be analyzed to confirm infection.
If your cat is possibly exposed to a rabid animal (e.g., if a rabid bat gets into your house), the CFIA may require the cat to be quarantined to be observed for signs of rabies. Vaccinated cats are quarantined for 30-90 days, depending on age and health status and previous number of vaccinations. Unvaccinated cats, including those that are not up to date on vaccination, may be quarantined for up to 6 months.
If your cat bites someone, your cat may need to be quarantined for 10 days, depending on vaccination history and likelihood of exposure to rabies.
What about rabies in the rest of the world?
Rabies in developing countries is an entirely different story from Canada. In these countries, where public health and large scale domestic animal vaccination programs have only been in place for the past decade or so, domestic dogs act as the reservoir, and dog bites are the main mode of transmission to humans. Over 50,000 people (with some estimates approaching 100,000) die every year from rabies, mostly in rural Africa and Asia. Over half of these are children under the age of 12.
Bytown Cat Hospital’s Dr. Amy Lowe has been involved in rabies prevention programs for dogs and cats since 2009, when she spent a summer volunteering with a spay/neuter and vaccination clinic through Veterinarians Without Borders in northern India. Part of the program involved visiting local schools to educate children on rabies prevention, where it was discovered that almost all the children had a close friend or family member die of rabies. Dr. Lowe has since returned to India to work with other clinics, as well as participating in clinics in Northern Labrador where free-roaming dogs are still rampant; and participates in a yearly mission trip to Honduras where rabies prevention is also the main goal.
Dr. Lowe is currently working on a charity program that will provide financial assistance for rabies vaccination and sterilization of cats in India. Stay tuned for more information!
[Dr. Amy Lowe]
For more information on rabies:
Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources:
Canadian Food Inspection Agency: Positive rabies cases in Canada