Misconceptions abound when it comes to the topic of rabies vaccinations for pets and bite holds, but one thing is clear – infection with the virus brings an almost certain death sentence if treatment doesn’t start early.

Laura Stroud, animal control officer for Price County, noted that she hears of a lot of cases in which people are afraid to report cat or dog bites, thinking that the animals will automatically be euthanized. 

“And that’s not the case,” Stroud said.

Stroud explained that if a cat or dog not up-to-date on its rabies vaccinations bites someone, they’ll be placed in a 10-day quarantine, as dictated by state statute.

In addition, vet checks will be conducted to look for any suspicious symptoms once at the beginning of the hold, once in the middle and again before the animal is released.

After the quarantine order is issued, in most cases by the Sheriff’s Department, the animal will be transported to a secure isolation facility as soon as possible within a 24-hour period. Around here, holds typically take place at Catkins Animal Rescue facilities west of Park Falls on a contract basis.

As explained by Price County Public Health Officer Michelle Edwards, the pet owner can choose where they want the animal to be held, whether that’s a veterinary clinic, or some other shelter or kennel.

In cases of animal bites, the Health Department is responsible for: number one, making sure that the bite victim was seen by a doctor and properly treated; and, number two, following up to see whether or not the animal was vaccinated and making sure that the proper protocol is used in the quarantine process, depending on the cat or dog’s vaccination status, said Leslie Borne, Price County public health nurse.

When animals at the center of reported bite cases have been properly vaccinated, they can be monitored by the owners at home, though three vet checks are still required over the course of the 10-day period.

“A lot of people think that if their dog is vaccinated that they don’t have to do that, but they do because not all animals, just like not all humans, develop the immunity even though they were vaccinated,” Borne said. 

The owner is responsible for the cost of overnight stays and veterinary care rendered during the 10-day period. 

If the animal looks all clear by the end of the 10-day hold, the owner will have the option to either get the animal vaccinated and take it home or have it euthanized. The vast majority of pet owners elect to go the vaccination route, Stroud said.

The reason for a 10-day hold goes back to the fact that the virus may reach an animal’s saliva, making them able to spread the disease before they show symptoms. In most cases, though, outward signs of rabies emerge no more than 10 days after they’ve become infectious.

This allows the bite victim to begin a course of vaccinations before the virus reaches the symptomatic stage if there is a chance of exposure, while at the same time sparing the patient from the potential cost and pain of injections if they are not called for.

While scaled back dramatically from the vaccination protocol of days gone by, preventive rabies treatments for humans still require four shots given over the course of about a month.

Once symptoms of rabies present themselves, the disease is virtually always fatal.

As outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of the viral infection initially feel very flulike, with an overall weakness, discomfort, fever and headache that can last for a few days. In addition, the sufferer may feel some discomfort, itchiness or a tingling sensation at the site of the bite wound. Symptoms may progress to include delirium, hallucinations, abnormal behavior, insomnia, anxiety, confusion, agitation and cerebral dysfunction.

In short, rabies is not a disease to be taken lightly.

“If we didn’t have the animals there, everybody would have to be treated and most of those would be unnecessarily,” Borne said, noting that Price County doesn’t have a high rate of rabies activity.  

So far, 2013 has, however, seen a high rate of reported animal bites, all seen as potential incidences of rabies exposure, with 34 counted as of November 26. Of those cases: 20 animals were pets with proof of current vaccination; one was a stray cat; another was a stray dog; and the other case involved a human-bat exposure. This left 11 dogs or cats that were unvaccinated.

With the exception of 2009, the four years previous to 2013 saw higher rates of unvaccinated dogs and cats than vaccinated animals in bite hold cases.

Borne emphasized the importance of keeping pets up to date on rabies vaccinations as a means of minimizing the number of overnight bite quarantines that are necessary and getting the cost of holds down. Her advice was that people keep their own records of shots rather than relying on the veterinary office to do so. This way, if the time comes to demonstrate proof of current vaccinations, the appropriate documentation will be on file and easily accessible.

One important thing Borne wanted to note was that with an animal’s initial course of the rabies vaccine, another shot needs to be given after one year. At that point, boosters are only given once every three years. Borne noted that she’s run into people who think they can go three years after that first dose, which is simply not the case.

Beyond outlining the protocol for bite holds, state law dictates that dogs must be kept up to date on their rabies vaccinations. Every dog needs to be licensed with the owner’s township of residence, and a prerequisite for licensure is that the dog has its rabies shots.

In addition to facing any costs that come with the bite hold, an owner can be fined for failure to properly license their pet if the Sheriff’s Department decides to pursue this, as Edwards explained.

Edwards said that it was important to note that while a certain portion of the licensure fee does go to the state, a lot of it stays in the county, covering the cost of keeping an animal control officer.

Stroud wanted to emphasize that vaccination requirements aren’t born out of some ploy to line people’s pockets.

“The state statute is in place to protect people and to protect animals,” Stroud said.

Any exposure to animals from outside the household presents a potential source for contracting rabies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks different types of mammals based on their risk of transmitting rabies when determining whether or not preventative vaccinations are warranted in the case of human-animal exposures.

Certain small mammals, including squirrels, mice, rats, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, rabbits, hares and chipmunks, rarely ever transmit the virus and are only seen as a potential rabies threat if they are sick or act strangely at the time of the bite.

Woodchucks and related species make up the majority of rabies cases reported among rodents and as a result are more frequently sent to state health labs for testing.

Skunks, raccoons, bats and other carnivorous mammals are seen as a more high-risk group along with cats and dogs.

Health Department reps emphasized that the animal’s head needs to be left intact in order for lab workers to make an accurate determination on its rabies status.

Cases of unusual animal behavior should be reported to the Sheriff’s Department, where officers can decide whether to seek out the assistance of animal control or the DNR in following up on the matter.

“We do have a lot of wildlife in the area, so it is important to keep up on vaccinations,” Stroud said.

And anyone who’s every awoken to the sight of a bat flapping around in their house will recognize that even if a pet primarily stays indoors, where there’s a woods nearby, there’s a way. 

A number of area clinics set up low-cost vaccination events, offering the shot at about $10 a pop, so there’s no reason financial limitations should stand in the way of getting pets vaccinated, as Stroud explained. 

“That’s what is going to protect people,” Stroud said.

(Copyright © 2019 APG Media)

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