Rabies, a Public Health Issue

If you get Ebola, your odds for dying are 50-89%. The Plague and SARS both have mortality rates of 70%. Rabies, however, has an almost 100% mortality rate. Approximately 55,000 people worldwide die each year from rabies.

Rabies is a rhabdovirus, a negative strand RNA virus and has only five proteins. The virus is rod shaped, and enters the victim via exposure to the saliva of an infected animal. This virus only affects mammals, which includes humans.

In most cases, the saliva of the infected animal must enter the victim's body via a break in the skin such as a bite wound. However, it is also possible for the virus to enter the bloodstream through the cornea of the eye, an unrelated open wound, or even via inhalation. People have contracted the bat form of rabies without any known bite or direct contact with bats, presumably through inhalation when exposed to bat droppings.

Worldwide more people die from canine rabies than rabies from any other animal. In the United States, the major carriers of rabies are raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats. While the wildlife reservoir is important, the prevalence of rabies in bats may be overestimated. Older studies on bats took their samples by using passive surveillance close to human habitation. This type of sampling is biased in that it is more likely to over-represent sick bats and under-represent those healthy individuals who display normal behaviors such as remaining nocturnal and away from areas inhabited by humans. A newer study (Klug et al. (2011) Journal of Wildlife Diseases, vol 47, p.64-77) has randomly sampled bat populations and has found the prevalence of rabies in bats (0.8%) to be significantly less than the passively surveyed studies (6%).

Rabies is an important public health concern because humans are more likely to contract rabies from their pets, even though in the general population our pets do not have a high prevalence of rabies.

Whenever your pet is showing signs of a health issue your first step is to contact your primary care veterinarian. If you are worried that your pet may be at risk of rabies or another serious condition, a veterinary specialist is available at an ExpertVet certified hospital.

More Information

Although wildlife serves as a reservoir for rabies in the United States, most people exposed to rabies are exposed via contact with domestic animals. Many people associate rabies exposure with dogs, although cats historically have a higher incidence of rabies. In fact, the number of rabies cases in cats was three times higher than the number of cases in dogs in 2008, and the number of cases of rabies in felines increased from 2008 to 2009. Perhaps this is due, in part, to the fact that cats are less likely to receive routine veterinary care than their canine counterparts. In 2006, approximately 36% of cat owners in the United States did not visit a veterinarian that year, as compared to fewer than 18% of dog owners. Although cats are more susceptible to the virus, it still begs the question of whether cats would have such high rates of rabies if they received more veterinary care as a population. If you are a cat owner, be vigilant about this important health risk. As a general rule, do not pickup or play with a stray cat showing any signs of illness as rabies remains an important consideration in an ill stray cat.