snarling raccoon
Photo courtesy Alan Vernon, flickr creative commons.

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By Stephanie Soucheray

For most, hearing the word “rabies” conjures up a few images: The tear-jerking finale of Old Yeller or being so mad you’re considered “foaming at the mouth.”

But for veterinarian Cora Beth Lanier at the Triangle Veterinary Hospital in Durham, rabies is a serious disease she deals with every few months.

Photo courtesy Alan Vernon, flickr creative commons.

“Rabies is not something we joke about,” she said. “There’s no treatment for people, so we don’t take any chances.”

With summer approaching and school ending, rabies season is now in full bloom.

Most domestic pets, such as cats and dogs, contract rabies from an animal bite. In North Carolina, Lanier said possums and raccoons are the most common rabies carriers that transmit the disease to domestic pets. Skunks, foxes and bats are also among the more common carriers in the continental U.S.

“If you see a nocturnal animal like a possum or a raccoon during the daytime and they don’t seem scared of humans, there’s a good chance they could have rabies,” she said.

Rabies is a virus easily transmitted between animals through bites or infected saliva. The disease affects the central nervous system in humans and is almost always fatal within a matter of days unless the victim receives post-exposure prophylaxis in the form of a localized vaccine administered to the infection site for two weeks.

According to a report published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, North Carolina had the third-highest number of rabies cases in 2012, with 434 (Texas and Virginia were ranked higher).

Last month, counties across the state started reporting their first rabies cases. In Guilford County, a domesticated cat was found to have the disease. In Orange County, there have been 11 rabies cases reported in 2014, many involving aggressive raccoons. Orange County reported 12 rabies cases in both 2012 and 2013.

“It’s difficult to say whether there are more or less cases of rabies in any given year,” said Kristi Clifford of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. “Keep in mind that the data we have is just from the animals we test that have potentially exposed people or pets.” That means it’s hard to get an accurate measure of how prevalent rabies is in any given wildlife population.

North Carolina law requires that dogs and cats over the age of 14 weeks be vaccinated against rabies. The vaccine usually costs about $5. Lanier said a one- or three-year vaccine is available in the state; she recommends the one-year for dogs and three-year for cats.

“Cats are more sensitive, and there’s been a link between frequent vaccines and cancer in the injection site for [cats],” she said.

Lanier said that if your pet has a bite of an unknown origin, a trip to the vet is a must. The animal will receive a booster shot if it’s up to date on its vaccines. If it’s missing a vaccine, it may be quarantined for up to 10 days to see if rabies has been transmitted.

“I always say I’m so sorry [for the quarantine],” said Lanier. “But this is something we do to save lives.”

If you notice raccoons, foxes, skunks or possums in your neighborhood that act aggressive or unfazed by humans, it’s best to call animal control.

Editor’s note: The story was originally unclear about when to your pets vaccinated, the text has been changed to reflect that vaccination should occur after 14 weeks. Talk to your vet about whether the three or one-year vaccine is best for your animal.

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