Pets With Out-of-Date Rabies Vaccination May Not Need Long Quarantine

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Cats can contract rabies from wildlife

Outdoor cats may be exposed to rabies. Image by Dlls

A study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in January 2015 suggests that a six-month quarantine may not be necessary for some dogs and cats who come in contact with a rabid animal.

The study showed that a post-exposure booster vaccine stimulated the immune systems of these pets as strongly as those who were current on their vaccines.

Based on this information, the authors suggest that a six-month quarantine in a state approved quarantine facility or euthanasia may not be necessary.

Prevalence of Rabies in the United States

The 2013 rabies surveillance report showed an overall decline in the disease in both wild and domestic animals. Wildlife made up the highest reported incidence of rabies at 5,865 cases, with raccoons topping the list, followed by bats, skunks and foxes.

There were 467 domestic animal rabies cases, with cats accounting for more than 50 percent, followed by dogs and cattle (approximately 20 percent each) as well as a few horse, mule, sheep and goat cases. Only three human cases were confirmed.

In contrast to most species, there were more dog rabies cases in 2013 than in 2012 – and more than the mean number reported each year between 2008 and 2012. However, with so few dogs being diagnosed with rabies, a pet is more likely to be exposed to rabid wildlife than to a rabid dog.

Raccoons are a potential source of rabies. Image by MorrisS

This is particularly true of raccoons and skunks, the two most common rabies sources, and the most likely to spend time in urban and suburban areas. Both skunks and raccoons feed on pet food and/or garbage left outside the house. This behavior also increases the chances of a pet coming into contact with these species in their own yard.

Rabies Quarantine Regulations Vary by State

Dogs and cats in most states are required to have a current rabies vaccination. Quarantine is usually required when an animal bites a person or another animal, however that quarantine is usually only ten days for pets with in-date vaccinations and in many cases the animals can be confined in their owner’s home.

If, however, a wild animal bites an unvaccinated pet or the pet has a bite wound of unknown origin, it must be quarantined for six months, usually in a state-approved facility. For pet owners who can’t afford the expense of this prolonged quarantine, the only other option is euthanasia, after which the pet is tested for rabies. (Live animals can’t be tested for rabies as the brain must be examined to confirm the virus’ presence.)

Canine and Feline Immune Systems Respond Even When Vaccination is Overdue

The study, conducted at Kansas State University, compared the response of dogs and cats who had current rabies vaccinations and those who are overdue for a booster. Dogs and cats who had never been vaccinated, or whose status was unknown, were not included, as these animals are generally considered high risk for being infected and thus likely to be subject, under the law, to the long quarantine or euthanasia.

Interestingly, dogs with out-of-date vaccinations had a stronger immune response than those dogs whose vaccines were in-date. The reasons for the stronger response are not clear but it does show that these dogs are as able to respond well to exposure to the disease.

An electron micrograph showing the rabies virus. Image by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Too few cats were eligible for inclusion in the study, whether vaccinated or not, to allow for clear analysis of relative response to the booster vaccination between in-date and out-of-date vaccination status cats. However, all cats included in the study developed an acceptable titer level, suggesting that a similar management system could be used.

The Importance of Keeping Rabies Vaccinations Current

While the new study is reassuring in that pets respond well to getting a post-exposure rabies vaccination, the safest option is to keep pet vaccinations current.

Raccoons, skunks and foxes, species who often carry rabies, are regularly found in suburban and even urban areas, increasing the chance that pets will come into contact with a rabid animal. And, the latest survey did show an increase in rabies in dogs.

An in-date rabies vaccination not only reassures pet owners they have done as much as possible to keep their companions safe, it eliminates the risk of long quarantine should a pet be exposed to the virus.

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