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Into the Wild: Rabies Prevention Tips for Pets

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During these first few weeks of summer, alarming reports of animals infected with rabies have been making headlines across the country, from Texas, to Maryland, to California.

For many pet parents, the threat of rabies probably doesn't seem very real. Along with the increase in awareness around rabies prevention and compliance with vaccine ordinances in recent decades has come a collective nonchalance about the disease -- but you can't really blame us. Thanks to the increase in preventative measures to protect us against rabies, most of us have never seen an animal -- especially a pet -- who has been affected.

But as the recent news reports have shown, rabies is still a risk worth learning about. Knowing how to not only identify an infected animal, but how to keep your pets out of harm's way, can mean the difference between life and death for our furry friends -- and can make for healthier, safer communities for the whole family.

The Rundown on Rabies
Rabies is a viral disease that affects the body's central nervous system. It is almost always fatal in animals, and can be just as deadly in humans if left untreated. The virus is spread through the saliva of an infected animal, usually through a bite wound, scratch or existing open wound. Raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes are the most common carriers of the disease in the U.S., but feral cat colonies can also be vulnerable to infection. While there are, on average, just two human rabies cases per year, incidences of rabies in domestic pets average 400 to 500 per year.

The good news is, taking a few proactive steps to protect your pets can go a long way toward keeping rabies far from your front door. Here's how to start:

Don't wait to vaccinate.
As soon as you get a new dog or cat, a rabies vaccine should top your list of must-haves -- yes, even before you pick out that perfect couture collar! Both dogs and cats should be vaccinated, even if they are "indoor only" animals, or never leave your back yard. The only exception to this golden rule is in cases of animals with weakened immune systems, where the vaccination can pose an unacceptably high risk to your furry friend's health (like my cat, Bodey, who could not receive the rabies vaccine after her infamous health scare). If your dog or cat has battled cancer or has neurological problems or immune deficiencies, talk to your vet about whether it's best to skip the vaccine on medical grounds.

Learn how to read the signs.
When you think of a rabid animal, you likely picture a Cujo-like beast, foaming at the mouth and charging about. But in reality, the early signs of rabies can be subtle. Some animals may just appear wobbly, unsure of their surroundings or withdrawn or they may demonstrate-out of-place behaviors -- you may spot a nocturnal animal like a skunk walking around in broad daylight. Animals can also appear anxious or overly friendly during the onset of the disease. It's only in the more advanced stages that the symptoms progress to drooling and foaming at the mouth, a result of the nerves in the animal's head and neck experiencing paralysis. If you notice any wildlife displaying odd behaviors like the above, do NOT approach the animal. Call your local animal control center to report the incident immediately.

Keep 'em on a short leash.
Municipalities have leash laws for a reason: they protect passersby from unexpected, unwanted run-ins with your dog or cat, prevent "waste disposal" in public places and -- most importantly when it comes to rabies -- reduce the chances that your four-legged family member will come face-to-face with local wildlife while out roaming. Your pet should be under your control at all times, for his safety and the safety of the community. Never let pets roam freely. If your dog or cat comes into contact with an animal suspected to have rabies, he will need to be quarantined for anywhere from 10 days to six months.

Make sure trash is securely stashed.
Wild animals that can be rabies carriers like raccoons, skunks and foxes, are drawn to both garbage and pet food, so be sure your trash is kept inside bins with locked lids and never leave food out for neighborhood cats. If you have a garage, you might want to keep your cans inside until trash day.

Clue in your kids.
While there's no need to scare your children about the threat of rabies (you may want to skip Old Yeller on movie night), make sure they understand that wild animals are different from pets, and that they should never approach an animal (wild or domestic, living or dead) that they do not know. Teach your children some animal behavior basics -- for example, that raccoons and bats only come out at night -- and tell them to alert an adult if they see an animal acting strangely. Knowledge is power, and kids can help keep the neighborhood safe, too!

As we get deeper into the summer months, reports of rabies cases will undoubtedly continue to pop up in the news, but as they say, "Keep Calm and Carry On." A little vigilance is all you need to keep furry friends, family and neighbors in the know -- and out of harm's way.