Vaccines keep rabies at bay

We don’t hear much about rabies, but it’s scary when we do.

The disease can be passed to humans with no curative treatment once clinical signs develop. It is virtually always fatal to mammals.

Only vaccination and strong surveillance programs have kept rabies at a low incidence in Canada.

Bats, skunks, raccoons and red and arctic foxes are the biggest reservoirs for the disease in this country.

It varies across the country, but Alberta has the most reported diagnosis in bats followed by skunks and cats. The arctic fox can be the source in northern Canada and Ontario has diagnosed cases in foxes and raccoons.

The federal government downloaded the responsibilities for rabies to the provinces as of April 1, even though it is still a reportable disease for veterinarians. This came suddenly out of a budgetary issue in 2012 with no consultation with our national veterinary group or other affected parties. It is called passing the buck.

Three other diseases were either dropped or downloaded, including anthrax, which is costly to deal with and is considered endemic in Western Canada.

However, rabies could be considered the most serious zoonotic disease and could put anyone involved in veterinary medicine and agriculture at severe risk if they come in contact with a rabid animal.

I don’t like the federal government downloading responsibility to the provinces through a budgetary change, but it might be a good thing over the long term. The provinces will handle potential cases while the federal government lab will still do the testing.

The general public, including farmers, will not see much difference with this change because it will hopefully be a seamless transition. Veterinary clinics and medical health officers will still be involved.

Everyone needs to be on the lookout for animals exhibiting abnormal behaviour, including aggression and varying forms of paralysis, including an inability to swallow and salivate. Other signs can include incessant bellowing in cattle.

Animals will die within 10 days if clinical signs develop.

Veterinary clinics may be involved, especially in isolated areas. Clinical signs should be reported to them.

Rabies is rare and many other diseases can mimic it. For example, cows with wooden tongue or choke will salivate excessively. The two conditions are treatable and yet at first glance could indicate rabies.

Just because we haven’t diagnosed rabies in a while doesn’t mean it isn’t around. A client once found a bat alive in daylight hours on his lawn acting peculiar and unable to fly. It was submitted and tested positive for rabies.

Bats are the main reservoir in many areas, which means it is always advisable to vaccinate dogs and cats. Horses and cattle are often vaccinated in high-risk areas or if they are going to high-risk areas.

The World Health Organization divides rabies exposure into three levels.

Feeding, touching or licking from a rabid animal on intact skin is not considered exposure to rabies, while the second and third categories range from minor scratches to full depth bites and licks on broken skin. These are considered a potential exposure to rabies that should prompt medical care and the guidance of a public health officer.

We are lucky in Canada because good surveillance and vaccinating most pets has kept the incidence of rabies low.

Alberta has the famous rat patrol, which on top of keeping rats out of the province does the same for skunks in the southeast, where the rabies incidence is higher.

Saskatchewan has had cases of rabies in cattle and horses, especially in the south. Authorities in that province are in the midst of organizing rabies programs.

Watch for guidance from the office of the provincial veterinarian. Each province may implement it slightly differently, but the overall result should be the same as medical officers, veterinary clinics and provincial governments work together.

A salivating animal or one that is acting abnormally should be checked by a veterinarian. They will know what to do if rabies is suspected.

Human exposure through a bite or scratch from an animal should prompt medical attention and a call to Health Link at 800 408-5465.

Watch the news for further developments.

As a side note, birds, amphibians and reptiles can’t get rabies and rodents only rarely.

Roy Lewis works as a technical services veterinarian part time with Merck Animal Health in Alberta.

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