Rabies is the one and only pet vaccination with a law wrapped around it.
Let’s look at this law.
Who puts it forth? In each state, the rabies law is made by the Department of Health, a human health governmental body. Why? It exists to protect the human populace against rabies. We learned many years ago that, if we had a large percentage of the pets vaccinated against rabies, the incidence of human rabies decreased substantially.
This happens because pets are often the vector that deliver the rabies virus from the wildlife species where it has a reservoir (commonly in skunk, raccoon, fox, coyote, occasionally bats) to people. If a skunk with rabies bites your dog and your dog gets rabies and then bites you, you can get rabies. Not a good scenario, as there is quite a high likelihood of fatality with this virus.
But, if Spot is vaccinated against rabies, builds an immunity, and gets bitten by the same rabid skunk, Spot’s immune system rises to the challenge and wards off the infection (in theory; though vaccination ≠ immunization. Yet another wrinkle I’ll have more to say about).
So, the vaccination of pets seems to be preventing people from getting rabies.
But why require the rabies vaccination yearly? Or triennially? Is there any evidence that the immunity wanes at day 364 (or at 3 years-minus-one-day) and needs to be boosted?
Clearly not. Duration of immunity studies are few, but the evidence is, as the immunologists point out in my Efficacy page, that immunity likely lasts a lifetime.
Duration of Immunity Study Underway
As you may have heard, this “DOI” is currently being studied with rabies here: http://www.rabieschallengefund.org
The goal is to establish research findings, via longer term studies, that rabies will confer immunity for 5-7 years. Dr. Schultz is donating his time along with Dr. Jean Dodds, and the University of Wisconsin has donated overhead costs. The rest is up to pet owners, so head on over if you wish to support this project.
Useful questions to ponder when considering how you will interact with a law that can potentially harm your animal (see Vaccination Safety) are:
- Is my animal vaccinated against rabies already?
- If so, have I fulfilled the intent of the law to protect humans from my pet giving them rabies?
- If immunology shows a long lasting immunity to this viral vaccine, is it in my best interest or my pet’s best interest to continue following this law?
- Does anyone go door to door to check on my animals’ rabies vaccine status?
- If I choose not to vaccinate repeatedly for rabies, am I putting my animal at risk if he bites someone?
The last question is what may ultimately scare people into following a law that can make their animal chronically ill. But remember, my goal is to arm you with information so you can act reasonably rather than in fear.
If your animal bites someone, can he be put to sleep so his head can be examined for evidence of rabies? That’s the idea that sends most people to get the revaccination. What a scary thought!
Just the Facts, Ma’am
So, what are the facts? A stray animal who has bitten a person, who has no owner and no proof of vaccination against rabies can, by law, be euthanized and have its head sent for examination to determine if rabies is present.
Why so gruesome a test? There is unfortunately no easier way to determine if an animal was incubating rabies at the time it bit someone. And, if the bitten person could die of rabies, time is of the essence, and the department of health wants to know if they need to begin the series of expensive injections that can prevent rabies in the bitten person.
But what about MY animal biting someone?
If you have evidence that your pet has had a rabies vaccine sometime in his life, your animal is decidedly different than that stray dog. Yours is a vaccinated animal, and vaccinated animals are regarded differently than unvaccinated animals.
The worst-case scenario for a known vaccinated animal is a quarantine of ten days, in which your animal may be taken to a kennel and caged for observation. Sometimes this quarantine even happens in your own home. If an animal has just bitten someone because of rabies, the incubation period of the virus is almost finished and other behavioral changes indicating rabies will show during this period of quarantine.
In the absence of bizarre behavior typical of the rabid animal, your pet will be released after the period of observation. You may be admonished to get the shots once again, be given a board bill for the time of quarantine, and potentially a fine, though I’ve not heard of that happening.
A Case in Point: Buddy Bites a Human
Buddy is a dog patient of mine, who needs training and lacks a clear understanding of boundaries. He bit someone in the interest of getting his sandwich away from him. Oops!
Animal Control was called, and because he’d been off leash when the bite occurred, Buddy was “arrested” and quarantined at a veterinary clinic for 10 days of observation. Buddy’s owners had learned from me that “up to date” on vaccines meant that he had them in the past. And because he was already likely dealing with autoimmune problems, they stopped vaccinating Buddy further.
Other than the heartache of his owners missing Buddy while he was gone, Buddy came home in ten days after re-vaccination for rabies. Period. This is in Austin, and YMMV, but I suspect this is a typical bite scenario.
(If this happens to you, don’t expect any leniency from the animal control petty officials. I got no where asking that Buddy be allowed to wait out his quarantine at home. No thinking outside the box from these folks!)
How Risky is Biting?
A common question I’m asked is, “Aren’t I liable if my animal bites someone and he’s not up to date with his rabies vaccination?” There are two very different areas of concern here, so the questions should be,
1. “Am I liable if my animal bites someone?” and,
2. “Am I liable if my animal is not current on his rabies vaccines?”
So, the first question’s answer is yes, you are liable if your animal bites someone. Your animal has caused injury and you own this animal and are responsible for his behavior. Whether you get sued for the damages is up to the injured party.
But that has nothing whatsoever to do with your animal’s last rabies vaccine. Are you less liable if your animal is up to date on his rabies vaccine? I can’t imagine you would be. If someone needs medical care for wounds caused by your dog biting him, it’s purely academic whether of not he’s current on his rabies vaccine.
Question 2: Liable for “not current”?
A qualified yes, here. Qualified, because there’s a statute somewhere that can be enforced against you, technically. But, practically speaking, who’s going to know? Does anyone canvas the neighborhood asking to see current rabies vaccination certificates? Not in any municipality I’ve dealt with.
But, let’s say you’re confronted by the animal control officials after your animal has bitten someone. Again, the worst-case scenario, as long as you have proof of rabies vaccination at some time in the past, is a quarantine for observation.
One has to weigh this risk against the risk of repeatedly vaccinating their pet (see Safety to evaluate this risk). I can’t make that decision for you. I can say that a great many of my clients, perhaps 90%, choose not to continue repeatedly vaccinating for rabies.
Then comes another question:
“If I stop rabies vaccinations, how can I license my dog or cat?”
Here again, you have to decide how important this is to you. Most of my clients don’t license if this means they have to vaccinate time and again. And the most important tag to have on a collar is not a license tag: it is a tag that has your name and phone number on it.
The Bottom Line: Think!
So, I think you have to be an engaged pet owner, willing to think outside the box, think about your circumstances, and weigh risk vs. benefit for continuing to follow a law that clearly does not have your animal’s health foremost in its intent.
As the Safety part of this series points out, even continuing with just this one vaccination is not risk free. It may be better than doing all of the vaccines available, but not by a wide margin.
Think over it and see what fits for you and your pets. I presume if you’ve read this far, you’re quite good at the thinking part. Bravo. You can keep your animals healthier longer when you take this necessary thoughtful step.