If Fluffy is up to date on her rabies vaccine, she will be given a rabies booster and you can observe her for 45 days to make sure she is OK.
If Fluffy is not current on her rabies vaccine, health officials will recommend that your beloved pet be euthanized. If you’ve seen “Cujo,” about a lovable St. Bernard turned savage beast after he is bitten by a rabid bat, you know why.
While that might have been an exaggeration of the effects of this viral disease on an animal, it’s still a horrible way for a pet to die, with advanced symptoms that include delirium, abnormal behavior and hallucinations. Not to mention that before that happens, the pet could spread rabies to you or your family.
If you don’t have Fluffy euthanized, you will be required to keep her in strict quarantine for six months—or until she exhibits signs of rabies, at which point she would be put down—in a double cage with no human contact other than the owner. Think solitary confinement. (Or “Old Yeller”). It’s expensive, time-consuming and a really awful experience for Fluffy.
Give those choices, making sure your pets have been routinely vaccinated for rabies seems like the obvious and much easier voice. Plus, it’s the law. In West Virginia, household pets such as dogs, cats and ferrets must be vaccinated for rabies. Although not required, it is also highly recommended for other animals such as horses and cows, because all mammals can become infected and die from rabies.
Rabies has been an issue in West Virginia now for nearly 40 years, and it’s in the forefront again with recent confirmed cases of raccoons that have approached pets on private property. So far, there have been six confirmed cases of rabies in Monongalia County in 2018, in numbers collected by MCHD and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Wildlife Services based in Elkins.
The disease wasn’t found much in the state until raccoons were imported from Florida for the purposes of hunting in the late 1970s. Ever since then, health officials from the USDA have struggled to keep raccoon rabies at bay with bait that is dropped from helicopters. Raccoons that eat the bait are inoculated against the disease. The next round of bait drops is scheduled to take place in a couple of weeks, although it will happen mostly west of Monongalia County.
Here at Monongalia County Health Department, we also work to prevent rabies in the community. Registered sanitarians in our Environmental Health program conduct rabies surveillance. For instance, if we get a call from someone who has been bitten by a dog or cat, the sanitarian works to evaluate the animal to determine if the person who was bitten should seek medical care to prevent infection from rabies.
Rabies is transmitted in saliva, so if you or a family member is bitten or scratched by an unknown, unvaccinated animal or one that is behaving strangely, either domestic or wild, wash the wound immediately and seek medical attention. The doctor will work in conjunction with MCHD to determine appropriate treatment.
If you have a more pressing animal situation, you can call MECCA 911. If it’s about an unknown animal on your property acting strangely, or a bat in your house, call MECCA’s non-emergency number at 304-599-6382. If you or someone in your family is bitten by a wild or unknown animal, call MECCA 911.
As MCHD’s regional epidemiologist Dr. Diane Gross has noted, animals most commonly found to be rabid in West Virginia tend to be raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes. A bat found in a room where someone has been sleeping can be especially troublesome because that can make it more difficult to determine if the person has been bitten or scratched. That is enough to transmit rabies. It’s also a good reason to examine your home for any holes or openings where wild animals can get in and repair those.
And it’s also a good reason to make sure that your pets are up to date on their rabies vaccinations. With rabies, prevention is everything, because once the disease develops, there is not a cure.