Click on title for previous posts in this series:
Disclaimer: I want to make one thing clear: I am not against vaccinating your pets. I will be sharing our experiences, as well as information I have learned through research and from our own veterinarian. My intent is only to share information that might be important for pet families to know. You should always consult your own trusted vet when it comes to the care and safety of your own pets’ health.
Every state in the USA and many other countries have rabies vaccination laws for dogs and some for other pets. Rabies is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted to humans from other mammals. It is a viral disease most often transmitted through the saliva of infected animals after a bite. It affects the central nervous system, and ultimately causes disease in the brain and leads to death if untreated. The good news is that treatment for humans is very effective when caught soon enough and there is only an average of 2-3 deaths in the USA each year. Those that died from it were not aware of exposure and did not seek treatment in time.
Over 90% of the cases of rabies in the USA are found in wildlife. The most commonly infected animals are bats, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, and skunks. The most commonly infected domestic animals are cats, then cattle, and dogs. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that not all states have rabies laws for cats, and it is more commonly seen in cats. (Reasons for that could also be that cats roam more and lack of leash laws for them). I believe that it is because of these laws that rabies has become less common in humans over the years. The laws are working.
My state of New Hampshire has rabies vaccination laws for dogs, cats, and ferrets. The most commonly infected wildlife is bats, and the last deadly human case was in the 1990’s, and that person contracted it when bitten by a dog overseas. Most states (including mine) require dogs to be vaccinated every 3 years, though there are some that still require yearly or biennial vaccinations.
That might be the only flaw in the laws. Like other vaccines, it is believed that the rabies vaccine is effective for 5 or even 7 years, based on antibody titer tests (see link to Part 3 above). A non-profit group called the Rabies Challenge Fund is raising money and currently doing research to prove this, in the hopes of getting the laws changed. Their goal is to reduce the vaccines needed to avoid deadly adverse reactions which can happen with rabies vaccines. These reactions are most likely rare, but don’t doubt they can happen. When researching this for Cricket a couple of years ago, I found the blog Champion of my Heart, which chronicles the heartbreaking results of just such a reaction for a sweet dog named Lilly and her family.
Some states, including NH, allow for medical exemptions to the vaccine. When Cricket was due for her vaccine this year, our vet and I had a discussion about that. I was worried about her previous reactions to vaccines, even though they have not been life threatening and even though it was never pinpointed to the rabies vaccine. My fear is that she reacts to something else in the vaccines and that her reactions could escalate into something worse.
Our vet said that he rarely sees reactions to rabies vaccines. He also said that he understood my fears and was willing to give us the medical exemption for the state. He let me know that he did not think it was that risky, and that he would get the vaccine if Cricket were his dog. One of the things I like about our vet is that he gives his honest opinion, but he does not push it on us….the decision is always up to us.
I questioned getting titers done, and I questioned what would happen if we skipped the vaccine and Cricket was bitten by a rabid animal. He told me that she could be required to be quarantined for up to six months in that case, but further research later told me that was only if she had NEVER been vaccinated. Even the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) says that pets with expired vaccinations should be handled on a case to case basis. . Even if a pet is up to date on their vaccine, a period of confinement up to 45 days could be required. If she bit someone, she would be required to be quarantined for 10 days to be sure no sign of rabies showed up.
My vet also let me know that in all of his years of practicing, he has only seen two cases of rabies, one in a cat and one in a cow, and neither of those animals had ever been vaccinated. I made the decision not to have Cricket vaccinated based on a few things: Cricket never runs loose, we have a fenced in yard that wildlife rarely finds its way into (and she’s never left unattended out there). We rarely hike or go to places where there are a lot of other dogs, leading to any exposure for her. I know that none of that is a guarantee but I still feel like getting her vaccinated is more risky than not. The medical exemption is only good for one year, and Cricket is required to always be under our control, which she is anyway.
We also decided not to have the titers done at this time, even though my vet recommended we did just for peace of mind. Since I don’t feel the titer tests are always accurate, I didn’t want to end up second guessing our decision. But I’m not saying we won’t have it done in the future, especially when we reach the 5 year mark since her last vaccination.
In conclusion, I hope you take away these things from this post: Rabies vaccines are required by law and you should always know and follow those laws. However, if your dog or other pet has had a reaction, look into your state laws to see if a medical waiver is available. But you need to consider your pet and your lifestyle to determine if this a safe decision. As with anything else with our pets, these decisions aren’t easy and you just have to do the best you can armed with the most information you can get, and after a frank discussion with your own vet. Hopefully in the future the laws will be changed to reflect more current research and we won’t have to have these vaccines more than absolutely necessary, for the sake of not over-vaccinating our pets.
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