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D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    May 2008


Rabies Fact and Fiction

A Q&A with long-time veterinarian and former animal-shelter director Don Dykhouse.

In light of the recent outbreak of rabies in foxes in the Silver City area, I decided to have a sit-down with a friend of mine and find out just what is fact or fiction about this disease. Don Dykhouse has been a doctor of veterinary medicine for over 35 years and holds licenses in both New Mexico and Wisconsin; he also was previously licensed in two other states. For two years, he served as director of the High Desert Humane Society in Silver City. The following is a question-and-answer session between the two of us, with Dykhouse providing the answers to some important questions about rabies:

Q. Are we in a rabies epidemic?

A. Not really. An epidemic is widespread in a number of animals of the same species or beyond, with a relatively rapid increase in cases.

Q. Well, what do we have here locally?

A. We have an endemic spike in cases; "endemic" means that the disease is always present in some strain. In our case there is an increase in the presence.

Q. Is the rabies presence in gray foxes the same strain as in other creatures?

A. No. There are four major strains of rabies: in bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes. Before this latest outbreak, we mostly found the bat and skunk strains, and, of course, these species interact far less with humans or their pets because we tend to avoid bats and skunks. Thus we weren't as aware of them.

Q. Can these strains transfer from one species to another?

A. Yes. Any warm-blooded animal is susceptible to any strain and crossover.

Q. Where did this fox strain originate?

A. It started in foxes over in eastern Arizona [Lightner notes: Trapping is outlawed in Arizona.], then migrated to here. The sudden increase came about because of any of the following three reasons, or a combination of any: You have to have a pool of susceptible animals, an overabundance in close proximity of each other with the population increasing, and an introduction of a carrier, which could come from other strains, such as a raccoon and fox getting into a fight.

Then the infection spreads within the species at a rate of approximately 40 to 50 miles per year. Each local population then spreads it within itself, as we see here in Silver City.

Q. What is the normal "lifespan" of the disease as it spreads within a given geographical area?

A. There is no easy way to know. Generally speaking, it can be six months to two years depending on the density of the population. But in Pennsylvania the disease started in raccoons back in the 1970s and it is still going on beyond the normal, some 40 years later. Drought has an effect in reducing the timespan because it limits the number of prey species that a fox eats, thus there is a die-off of the fox population.

Q. Can this fox strain spread readily to the local coyote and wolf populations?

A. Most definitely yes.

Q. Is that probable at this time?

A. It is more possible than probable. Coyotes and wolves must come in contact with a rabid fox and have a fight with it or eat it. That isn't too common unless a rabid fox attacks one of those species. [Lightner notes: As it did when a fox attacked three dogs in Mangus Valley.]

Q. Can an airdrop of vaccine pellets help reduce the threat of rabies?

A. Yes, it has worked in Texas on raccoons, but there are mega problems with the program. It is very expensive and must be administered by the federal government, which also means that the city, county or state must appropriate funds to pay for it. The agency must get enough of the pellets on the ground and the foxes, stray dogs and cats must eat enough of it. Then if the vaccine is in direct sunlight, it is only useful for five minutes before it dies! So for the most part, it is an impractical idea.

Q. Why isn't there a "common" rabies vaccination for humans as there is with animals?

A. There is, and it's been around since Pasteur, but it is very expensive to buy because until 15 years ago, you couldn't grow a culture medium for humans. Now they have that but maintaining those cell lines is very expensive and it is classified as a bio-hazard number three, which means there are ramifications from the government. There also can be allergic ramifications as well in humans. But the major reason it costs so much is that it is experimental; they believe that the serum works, but they can't prove it. They can't get a person to test it because that person would have to volunteer to be bitten by a rabid animal and then wait. By the way, this same scenario applies to the Mexican wolf too. It is a protected species, so it can't be sacrificed to see if the serum works.

Q. If a person gets the shots, is the inoculation good forever or just a year or three like in dogs?

A. Nobody knows, again for the same reasons as cited above.

Q. If my dogs and cats have the rabies shot, let's say, the yearly variety, is that immunization good beyond the year period?

A. No one will absolutely say because of the legal ramifications due to liabilities. But the law states that a dog or cat must be current on rabies vaccinations, period.

Let me add here that if a pet has never been vaccinated, and gets the shot, there is a period of 14 to 21 days before the shot becomes effective. If your animal contracts the disease within that period, it won't be protected.

Q. If you or the animal is bitten, and you have the shots, is the critter then immune for life?

A. No one knows.

Q. Are all rabies, once contracted and not treated, 100 percent fatal?

A. Yes! Although there is one documented case of a person recovering in all of history.

Q. What is your recommendation for pet owners?

A. Get all of your pets and livestock vaccinated. By the way, in horses and cows, the disease could remain dormant for as long as nine months and the owner not know it.

Q. Is there a time of year when the disease is worse than other times?

A. Yes, the warmer months when animals are more active, so the outbreak should become worse as summer approaches.

Q. How can rabies be transmitted from one animal to another?

A. Only by saliva, and that saliva must come in contact with an open sore, scratch, cut or wound; even a paper cut will do. Oh, and it can be passed on if the infected animal is eaten.

Q. If housecats can get it, can bobcats and cougars get it?

A. Yes, in fact there were recent verified cases of a bobcat near Glenwood and a cougar in eastern Arizona.

Q. Can a person contract rabies from the blood of an infected animal?

A. No, they have never found such a case, since the disease is carried in the nervous system and the saliva. But if a person is handling the head of an infected animal they must ensure that they are careful with saliva, eye fluids and brain tissue. Wear gloves! By the way, that advice applies to all outdoor persons. Wear gloves, long trousers and long-sleeved shirts, and eight-inch boots to protect against an attacking animal. You just never know where the infected critter might be — as that homeowner in west Silver City found out.

Q. Do they still administer shots in the stomach for people?

A. No, they now give five shots spread out over a period of 28 days. The shots cost approximately $200 each and are given in a muscle. If you get preventative shots before the fact, they cost $200 also and you must get three, but remember they aren't proven to be absolutely reliable.

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