snarling raccoon
Photo courtesy Alan Vernon, flickr creative commons.

By Gabe Rivin

By 9:00 a.m. Saturday, the cars started to line up. Drooping ears and long snouts rummaged around the cars’ back seats. And Gaston County’s animal care and enforcement staff, syringes in hand, began their morning’s work.

The event, a free rabies vaccine clinic for pets, was part of Gaston County’s celebration of World Rabies Day, an international event held each year on Sept. 28. The day, according to public health officials and others, helps raise awareness about rabies, a deadly virus that can be transmitted among mammals.

snarling raccoon
In North Carolina, raccoons are the primary host of rabies. Photo courtesy Alan Vernon, flickr creative commons.

“It’s very important to publicize to let everybody know the seriousness of the disease,” said Sgt. J.F. Phil, a field supervisor for animal control in Gaston County’s police department, which worked alongside the county’s health department to run the rabies clinic.

Throughout North Carolina each September and October, county health departments offer free or low-cost vaccine clinics, often tying the clinics to World Rabies Day. The efforts, they say, help minimize rabies’ presence among dogs and cats, which ultimately protects human health.

In 2014, North Carolina reported 352 cases of rabies in animals, according to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Though numerous wild mammals can carry the disease, raccoons are the primary hosts.

“In North Carolina, and pretty much all of the East Coast states, they serve as the reservoir,” said Carl Williams, the State Public Health Veterinarian at DHHS. “That’s why we talk so much about leaving wildlife alone and keeping your pets vaccinated.”

Rabies is primarily transmitted through saliva, when one animal bites another. The virus infects the central nervous system, attacking the brain and ultimately leading to death. But humans can be treated for rabies, before or after an animal bite, through vaccines.

Williams said rabies is a minor threat to humans in the U.S. compared with countries like India, which has a larger population of rabid, feral dogs. And North Carolina has reported only two cases of rabies in humans since 1955, a testament to the state’s services in public health and animal control, he said.

Helping low-income pet owners

In North Carolina, pet owners are legally required to vaccinate their dogs, cats and ferrets against rabies, a requirement that mirrors those in other states, Williams said. Under state law, counties must offer at least one rabies clinic each year.

Yet some counties go beyond the state’s minimum requirements.

Rabies vaccines in North Carolina are available for 1 or 3 years. This dog has a 3-year tag.
Rabies vaccines in North Carolina are available for one or three years. This dog has a (blue) three-year tag. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Wake County hosts its own low-cost rabies clinics throughout the year, including an Oct. 3 clinic this year that coincides with World Rabies Day.

But the county also works to educate the public about rabies. On Oct. 5, as part of its celebration of World Rabies Day, the county’s animal center and human services department is hosting a public event, in which they will distribute brochures about the virus and the importance of vaccines.

“People really are at times confused about what exactly rabies is,” said Ricci Kearney, the volunteer and outreach coordinator with the county’s animal center. “Some people are even confused that it can be spread to humans as well. It’s such an important day to recognize, because it’s such an easy thing to prevent.”

At its Oct. 3 clinic, the county will offer vaccines for five dollars. Kearney said the low costs keep the vaccines affordable for some residents who otherwise couldn’t pay for them.

Vaccine prices vary at private veterinary clinics throughout the state. At Wake Forest’s Banfield Pet Hospital, for example, rabies vaccines range from $20 to $32. TotalBond Veterinary Hospital, in Davidson, charges between $19 and $24.40.

Along with its lower prices, Wake County also tries to make its vaccine clinics convenient for residents, Kearney said.

“Normally, it’s a long line of a bunch of barking dogs and meowing cats,” he said. “We have volunteers that go out to the line, and they complete the necessary paperwork for the public.”

The county’s work extends beyond rabies clinics. Animal center staff sometimes drive to areas with many low-income residents and go door to door offering to vaccinate pets.

Kearney said that rabies clinics are a great way to connect with residents who love their pets.

“You also interact with a lot of individuals who may be on hard times, who may not be able to afford a full-price vaccine at their vet,” he said. “To be able to come out and spend five dollars and know their pet is protected for a year or three years is just great.”

Phil, of Gaston County’s police department, struck a similar note about the importance of low-cost vaccines.

“Sometimes you see people have a hard time making it themselves, but you see that they take good care of their animals, even though they’re having to cut back from stuff for themselves,” he said. “Even people who can’t afford medical care for their animals, it’s good to be able to provide the vaccine for them.”

Update: An earlier version of this story said that Wake County planned to distribute brochures today. The event was subsequently postponed until Oct. 5 due to weather, and now has been postponed indefinitely.

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Gabe is our former environmental health reporter from 2014-2016. He is a former editor of The Cooperative Business Journal, and a former reporter for Inside Washington Publishers, where he covered federal...