Effective January 9, 2019 Howell County has been placed under a rabies alert by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS). This alert has been issued due to a cat from Howell County that tested positive for rabies on December 13, 2018. Because rabies in a domestic animal represents a serious and imminent public health threat, DHSS has placed the county under a rabies alert. The cat was a stray animal with which a family of five (parents and three children) had contact. The cat began acting strangely and fortunately was taken to a local veterinarian, who submitted a specimen for rabies testing at the State Public Health Laboratory. All five family members received the anti-rabies series of shots due to their exposure to this animal. An investigation conducted by the Howell County Health Department and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services found that no other persons were known to have had contact with this cat. Two other cats that belonged to the family were euthanized and tested negative for rabies. No other animals on this premise were deemed to have had significant exposure to the rabid cat.
According to Justin Frazier, Environmental Services Supervisor at the Howell County Health Department, anyone who has been bitten by an animal, particularly a stray dog or cat or a wild animal, should wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water for 10 to 15 minutes. If possible, and without further injury, try to capture or confine the biting animal so that it can be quarantined or tested for rabies (depending upon the species of animal). If the animal is destroyed, avoid damaging the head since the brain is the only specimen that can be tested for the presence of the rabies virus. Persons should contact their physician to see if medical care (antibiotics, tetanus booster, etc.) is needed, and to have a rabies risk assessment made. They should also contact their local public health agency to seek assistance in obtaining proper disposal of the biting animal.
Rabies is a disease of mammals and is transmitted primarily through bites. Over 90% of reported rabies cases in the United States are wild animals commonly seen in neighborhoods and backyards, such as bats and skunks. Vaccinated pets provide a barrier between those animals and families, and public health experts want pet owners to know that by protecting their pets they also are protecting their loved ones.
Missouri health officials urge pet owners to visit their veterinarians and update their pets’ rabies vaccinations. “Pet owners need to understand how close the threat of rabies is to their families,” said Frazier. “It’s often as close as the skunk that walked through the back yard.”
Special attention should be paid to bites from bats since their small, needle-like teeth could result in a wound that goes unnoticed or is ignored. Although less than one percent of wild bats have rabies, almost all human rabies deaths in the United States occur from exposure to rabid bats. A Missouri man died from rabies in November 2008 due to a bite from an infected bat. The man did not seek medical treatment following the bite, underscoring the necessity of consulting with medical professionals following such exposures. Another man died from rabies in September 2014, also with evidence of having been bitten by a rabid bat. Persons who find a bat in their home should consult with their local public health agency or animal control office to determine if testing of the bat is necessary. This could keep these persons from having to undergo the anti-rabies series of shots, which might be the recommendation if the bat is simply caught and released without testing. Directions for safely capturing a bat that the health department or animal control office has determined needs to be tested can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website http://www.cdc.gov/rabies/bats/contact/capture.html.
“Rabies is not just a problem in Howell County. It can be found in any county in Missouri. Over the past 10 years, Missouri has averaged about 40 rabid animals annually, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This number includes only those animals tested because they either bit a person or someone’s pet – there were undoubtedly many more rabid animals that went undetected. Most of the animals found to be rabid during this time period were bats and skunks, but the total also includes cats, dogs, cattle, and horses,” according to Frazier.
Anti-Rabies Regimen for People
Following a potential exposure to rabies, there is normally a window of opportunity (usually measured in days) during which the patient can receive a series of shots to keep him/her from developing rabies. The current series of shots is very effective if given soon after the exposure, and is fewer in number with far less side effects than the previous anti-rabies regimen. However, the current series is not without some discomfort and risk and can be very expensive. The shots are not effective once symptoms develop.
Vaccination of Animals Against Rabies
Rabies vaccines are licensed in the United States for use only in dogs, cats, ferrets, cattle, horses, and sheep. There are no licensed rabies vaccines for use in wild animals or in wild-domestic animal hybrids such as wolf-dog crosses. Dogs and cats should normally receive an initial rabies vaccination at three to four months of age, followed by a booster shot one year later. After that, the animal should be placed on a revaccination schedule, depending on the labeled duration of the vaccine used (1- and 3-year vaccines are available for dogs and cats; there is also a 4-year vaccine for cats). Many towns and cities have animal control ordinances that specify the age of initial inoculation, as well as, the frequency of booster doses; pet owners and veterinarians must comply with these vaccination requirements.
By Missouri statute and code, when an animal is immunized against rabies, the vaccine must be administered by a licensed veterinarian. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, along with all city and county health departments in the state, does not recognize an animal as being immunized against rabies unless done so by a licensed veterinarian. The reason for this is that it must be absolutely certain the vaccine was given properly (that is, the proper type of vaccine, dose, route of administration, storage conditions, frequency of boosters, etc.). Of course, this “attention to detail” derives from the fact that rabies in people is essentially a 100% fatal disease. Consider the medical care provider who is assessing the bite wound of, for example, a five-year-old child who was bitten by a neighbor’s pet dog. One of the key questions the provider will ask is, "Has the dog been vaccinated against rabies?" The answer to this question may help the provider determine if the child should receive the anti-rabies series of shots. If the answer is, "The dog's owner bought some rabies vaccine at the feed store or on the Internet and gave it to the dog a year or two ago," the physician may very well opt to treat the child. If the answer is, "The dog was vaccinated by a veterinarian 10 months ago - here is the rabies tag and certificate to prove it," the physician would most likely not put the child through the series of shots.
Management of Pets Bitten by a Rabid Animal
Pet owners should be aware that if their dog or cat does not have a current rabies vaccination and is bitten by a rabid animal, the pet will either need to be euthanized or quarantined for up to six months, often at a veterinary facility or city/county animal impoundment facility (if one is available) at the owner’s expense. In contrast, a dog or cat that is currently vaccinated and which is bitten by a rabid animal needs only a rabies booster shot followed by a 45-day home quarantine.
- Ensure dogs, cats, and ferrets are up-to-date on rabies vaccinations. Vaccinations are also available for horses, cattle, and sheep. The effectiveness of animal vaccines is the main reason for the nationwide decline in rabies cases among people and domestic animals.
- Keep pets under control; do not allow them to run loose.
- Avoid contact with stray pets and wild animals; do not keep wild animals or wild animal crosses as pets.
- Report wild animals exhibiting unusual behavior or stray pets to animal control officials.
- Personal pets should not be handled without protection directly after being exposed to wildlife due to the potential for carrying residual saliva from the infected animal.
Information pertaining to rabies can be found on the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services website http://health.mo.gov/living/healthcondiseases/communicable/rabies/index.php and the CDC website http://www.cdc.gov/rabies. For more information on rabies in Howell County, contact the Howell County Health Department at (417) 256-7078.