Help pet owners understand why rabies is still a big deal

By MWI Animal Health

Revisit messaging about rabies risks and vaccinations
Vet examines small dog

Pet health professionals increasingly field questions and concerns about the necessity and frequency of vaccines for furry family members. Because rabies remains rare in the United States compared to other parts of the world, people may even ask, "Why do dogs get rabies vaccines?"

The short answer? Because rabies vaccines protect companion animals from certain death, and vaccinated pets provide a protective barrier for people from rabies in wild animals by breaking the infectious cycle.

Rabies in animals and in people

United States rabies surveillance through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports approximately 5,000 cases of rabies in animals each year. Though 90 percent of those cases happen in wildlife — bats (33 percent), raccoons (30.3 percent), skunks (20.3 percent), and foxes (7.2 percent), there are reports of 60–70 rabies cases in domestic dogs and more than 250 cases in domestic cats each year. Recently, for the first time in 10 years, Michigan officials euthanizes a 6-month-old, unvaccinated puppy who developed rabies.

Since 1960, the United States has typically only seen one or two rabies cases in people per year, down from more than 100 in the early 20th century. This CDC resource on the public health implications of rabies says, "This decline can be attributed to successful pet vaccination and animal control programs, public health surveillance and testing, and availability of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) for rabies."

When U.S. residents die of rabies, it's typically because they didn't seek immediate medical care. The CDC public health resource explains, "While the exact reason for not seeking care is often unclear, lack of awareness of the risk of rabies is thought to be an important factor."

Pet health messaging about rabies vaccinations

So, why don't some pet parents take rabies as seriously as veterinary and public health professions would like? The reasons are probably twofold:

  1. Rarity of exposures and cases — in many communities — which may make it seem like vaccination isn't necessary
  2. Lack of knowledge about the consequences and how big a deal it can be if pets not current on their rabies vaccinations either tangle with rabid wildlife or bite someone

Though many rabies vaccination conversations happen during routine wellness exams, opportunities to raise risk literacy about what happens if rabies vaccination is delayed also come up when local public health officials find rabid wildlife in your community.

The message needs to be more than a generic, snooze-inducing reminder to keep pets vaccinated, however. Bolster your pet health education and persuasion with these points about rabies disease risks and lapsed rabies vaccinations:

  • Death rate. Rabies infections are 100% fatal in unvaccinated animals.
  • Risk to people. As a zoonotic disease, rabies can infect people. "Once a rabies infection is established, there's no effective treatment. Though a small number of people have survived rabies, the disease usually causes death. For that reason, if you think you've been exposed to rabies, you must get a series of shots to prevent the infection from taking hold," according to the Mayo Clinic.
  • Legal mandate. In addition to being a core vaccine, rabies vaccination is the only vaccination legally mandated because of its importance to public health and safety.
  • Advancing science. Share vaccination guidelines from veterinary organizations with clients so that they understand the clout and research behind your recommendations. This includes that as the profession learns more vaccination recommendations do evolve such as the move from annual boosters to triennial ones. That's why such guidelines today typically recommend rabies vaccination every three years for adult cats and dogs based on the Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control (last updated in 2016), which most states follow to set requirements for vaccination frequency.

To prepare for those who ask about longer revaccination intervals, read through the Rabies Challenge Fund's research with your team and discuss the results together so that everyone understands what happens with immunity protection beyond three years and what additional research is still necessary before rabies control officials might consider an expanded vaccine timeline.

Consequences of rabies exposure

Client communication using tech tools give you the opportunity to monitor each patient's vaccination needs and to educate clients on keeping pets in compliance with your medical recommendations. The truth is that even top pet health consumers may not know what happens if rabies vaccine is delayed and pets get exposed to rabies through contact with wildlife.

If this happens, several factors trigger recommendations from public health officials. Those factors include the pet's vaccination status, whether officials can confirm the wildlife in question indeed has rabies, and whether the pet — even those current on vaccination — shows any signs rabies.

While rabies vaccination provides the best possible protection, options from worst- to best-case scenario always include euthanasia, and the risk of getting that recommendation from public health officials increases for unvaccinated pets or those overdue. That's the longer, more complicated answer to the question: "Why do dogs get rabies vaccines?"

Per the CDC, "Any illness in an animal under observation should be reported immediately to the local health department. If the animal under observation develops signs suggestive of rabies, it should be euthanized by an animal health professional and its head submitted to a diagnostic laboratory for testing."

The option for serology testing for dogs and cats overdue for routine vaccination is relatively new, based on research published in 2015 that noted, "Results indicated that dogs with out-of-date vaccination status were not inferior in their antibody response following booster rabies vaccination, compared with dogs with current vaccination status. Findings supported immediate booster vaccination followed by observation for 45 days of dogs and cats with an out-of-date vaccination status that are exposed to rabies, as is the current practice for dogs and cats with current vaccination status."

Consequences of overdue rabies vaccinations if a pet bites

According to the Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control, 2016, immediate revaccination is not recommended during the observation period to prevent rare adverse vaccine reactions from being confused with symptoms of rabies. In addition, the confinement period is shorter if a dog, cat, or ferret, just 10 days from the time of exposure.

When the initial post-bite waiting period and potential drama die down, veterinary teams can coach clients about getting up to date and staying that way going forward by explaining:

  • How the situation could have been worse legally and medically, depending on the severity of the bite, the pet's vaccination status, and if the pet had displayed any signs during the waiting period that could have been interpreted as symptoms of rabies
  • How the pet may undergo increased scrutiny by animal control officials
  • How catching the pet up on all preventive care now demonstrates their commitment to doing what it takes to keep their pet and people in their community safe

Improving rabies vaccination compliance

Even with triennial revaccination protocols for adult dogs and cats, veterinary teams should still mention rabies vaccination to reiterate what has been done and reinforce its importance — such as, "Since we gave a rabies vaccine in 2019, [name of pet] won't be due for that again until 2022. Our computer system will flag that automatically, send you a reminder, and make sure it's added to our appointment plan next year."

That assumes your practice management information system and client communication tools can do all of that for rabies vaccine requirements and any other pet health protocols. Because at any given time, nearly all patients need something, and their families could use clear coaching and calendars about what's due when — and why, if the reason has faded in their minds.

Increasing compliance across all key measures requires giving veterinary teams access to an instant and clear view of what's due soon and what's overdue every time they connect with each client.

Help clients show their compliance

Think ahead and order 2022 rabies tags to distribute to pet owners