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N.C. Public Health officials urge rabies vaccinations to protect pets, people

For release: Immediate    August 12, 2011
Contact: Mark Van Sciver 919-855-4840

RALEIGH – North Carolina health officials are encouraging veterinarians statewide to educate pet owners about the importance of keeping up with rabies vaccination, especially in young pets.

This week a litter of seven puppies was determined to have been exposed to a rabid animal, most likely a raccoon. Despite showing no obvious signs of attack, one puppy from the litter has died from rabies; the others are facing potential quarantine or euthanasia in accordance with state law. More than 10 people are receiving rabies post exposure prophylaxis due to exposure to the rabid puppy.

While it is North Carolina law to keep pets vaccinated against rabies, these puppies were too young to be vaccinated. This highlights a key concern for people with pet dogs, cats and ferrets that are very young. Dogs, cats and ferrets can be vaccinated as early as 12 weeks of age. However they are not considered immunized until 28 days after administration of the initial rabies vaccine. During this time owners must ensure their pets are not exposed to rabies. Here are precautions to take:

  • Keep pets indoors. Supervise pets outside, and abide by all local leash laws.
  • Do not feed pets outside. Pet food attracts wildlife that may carry rabies.
  • Do not feed wildlife, feral cats or feral dogs.
  • Secure garbage cans with wildlife-proof lids.

Rabies in juvenile animals is not uncommon yet most people are surprised to hear that puppies and kittens can be infected with rabies. Several years ago a stray kitten found in South Carolina, which was brought to North Carolina was determined to have rabies and resulted in multiple human exposures. A podcast of that story can be heard on the CDC website at: http://www2c.cdc.gov/podcasts/player.asp?f=7580. Had this kitten or the puppies above been protected from wildlife they would have survived and not exposed people to rabies. Once animals are of appropriate age rabies vaccinations can be acquired through local veterinarians. To find a vet near you, visit the N.C. Veterinary Medical Association's website.

Each year, the State Laboratory of Public Health tests from 4,000 to 5,000 animals that have potentially exposed people and unvaccinated animals to rabies. Of those tested, about 400 to 500 animals test positive each year. More than 90 percent of those animals are wildlife. However in 2010, 17 cats and two dogs tested positive to rabies. In 2009, 19 cats and seven dogs tested positive.

According to North Carolina Public Health Law 130A-197, any pet that has been exposed to rabies and is not currently vaccinated must be euthanized or quarantined for up to six months at a facility approved by the local health director. An animal is currently vaccinated if the initial vaccination was administered at least 28 days previously and booster vaccinations have been administered in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations.

The decision to euthanize or quarantine an animal, even a family pet, has serious emotional and financial consequences. However, any dog or cat that is exposed to rabies may incubate the disease for up to six months without showing any clinical signs. The only way to avoid the risk is to separate your pets from wildlife and keep your pets vaccinated against rabies.

Rabies is a deadly disease that affects the nervous system and is 100 percent fatal once clinical signs develop. For more information about rabies, contact your local health department or visit the N.C. Veterinary Public Health website at http://www.rabies.ncdhhs.gov/epi/vet.html. Public health veterinarians from the N.C. Division of Public Health are available to answer questions about rabies at 919-733-3410.

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