2010-08-25 / Front Page

Rabies numbers on track for this year

By Jim McConnell

Dr. Thomas Rohlk prepares to administer a rabies vaccination to a collie named Bumper with the help of assistant Sara Browne. Lisa Billings/Chesterfield Observer Dr. Thomas Rohlk prepares to administer a rabies vaccination to a collie named Bumper with the help of assistant Sara Browne. Lisa Billings/Chesterfield Observer Earlier this summer, two dogs that lived in the county’s Foxcroft subdivision came into contact with a raccoon that later tested positive for rabies. Both dogs’ immunizations were up-to-date, and both survived the encounter.

About three weeks ago, a Brandermill cat sustained severe injuries in a fight with another rabid raccoon. The 16-year-old cat had not been immunized against rabies and subsequently was euthanized in accordance with state law.

One happy ending. One sad.

The only difference? A vaccine that shields dogs and cats from the fatal disease that attacks the central nervous system of mammals.

“This situation highlights the need to keep pets’ immunizations up-to-date as the best way to protect your pets, yourself and your family from the deadly rabies virus,” wrote acting Chesterfield Health Director Dr. Danny Avula in a press release about the cat.

File photoFile photo State law requires all dogs and cats over the age of 4 months to be vaccinated against rabies. Vaccines can be given as early as 3 months, and one product is approved for kittens as young as 8 weeks.

Still, some Chesterfield pet owners continue to learn this lesson the hard way.

According to statistics compiled by the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), there were six laboratory-confirmed cases of animal rabies in the county through Aug. 7.

That figure falls in line with both last year’s tally (7) and the county’s annual average (7.5) since 1999, the last year for which VDH maintains rabies statistics.

According to Avula, there’s nothing unusual about this year’s case count; it’s the norm to see more rabies exposures in the spring and summer when animals (and humans) are more active. “There is some seasonal variation to rabies exposure,” he said.

Four of this year’s cases have involved raccoons, which test positive for the virus far more frequently than any other animal in the county and the commonwealth as a whole. Skunks, foxes and bats are the next most likely rabies carriers.

Interaction with these animals has become more common as sprawling suburban developments push further into their natural habitats.

“Basically we’re invading areas that were previously inhabited by wildlife,” said Dr. Thomas Rohlk, owner of Old Dominion Animal Clinic in Chester. “People need to stay clear of wild animals and realize they’re not always just acting wild; sometimes there is something wrong with them.”

“The best thing for people to do if they see a wild animal that’s acting aggressively is to pull themselves and their pets out of the area and then call animal control immediately,” said Avula.

Human rabies cases are pretty rare. VDH data includes only two confirmed human rabies deaths in the state: one in 1989, the other in 2003.

But when it comes to dogs and cats, whose natural instincts don’t always lead them to avoid other animals, maintaining current immunizations remains the only effective method of preventing the spread of the incurable virus.

If a vaccinated pet comes into contact with a rabid animal, the health department recommends quarantining the exposed pet for at least 10 days just to be sure it hasn’t contracted the disease.

But if an unvaccinated pet is exposed, the owner’s decision becomes much harder: Either the pet owner must quarantine the exposed pet in a double-enclosed space for 6 months to rule out the contraction of rabies, or it must be euthanized. “In cases where the owner opts to keep a pet, animal control or the health department will do inspections,” explained Avula.

Given the stakes, why wouldn’t all pet owners perform their due diligence in that regard? While economic factors may play a role, many veterinarians are flexible when it comes to the cost of the rabies vaccine – and for pet owners who still can’t afford it, the county offers reduced-fee immunization clinics at various points during the year. The health department plans to offer a rabies clinic in October.

Rohlk offered another theory about why so

of the many dogs and cats get their shots on time, while others are left exposed to rabies:

“People have other things going on,” he said. “It’s not always first and foremost in their lives.”

Helpful numbers

If you see an animal acting strangely, call animal control at 748-1251. Common symptoms of rabies in wild animals include aggressiveness, having no fear of humans, excessive drooling, an animal that’s normally nocturnal being active in the daytime and paralysis.

To inquire about low-cost rabies vaccination clinics, call the health department’s environmental health office at 748-1610.

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