I read several reports of identified rabies cases this summer: Maryland, Colorado, Texas, Florida… In some cases wildlife such as raccoons were involved. In others, it was dogs and cats, with potential exposure to humans. Why is it all over the news and internet? Because rabies is one of the deadliest virus that exists for human beings! There is definitely a risk in North America, because of the huge wildlife reservoir (foxes, wolves, coyotes, skunks, raccoons, bats,…) that can be found here. And some environments are more at-risk: if you are a veterinarian, the risk of being exposed is 300 times greater than that of the general population! I did not find any data concerning the risk for people working in shelters, but I would assume it might not by that different, knowing that you might deal with wildlife and animals (cats, dogs, rodents) of totally unknown health status.
So you are at risk, great, but what can be done to lower it? Obviously there are a few things:
1/ Since you are working in an at-risk environment, ask your physician for rabies vaccination!Veterinarians, animal health technicians and caretakers, animal control officers, wildlife biologists, etc, should receive preexposure vaccination.
2/ Rabies is mainly transmitted after being bitten by an infected animal that has rabies virus in its saliva. Remember that ALL mammals you may have to handle represent a potential risk. So always be cautious! However keep in mind that this is not the sole form of transmission: intranasal exposure or ingestion, although uncommon, can also occur. So wear gloves when taking care of a new intake. And after manipulating it, wash your hands thoroughly!
3/ In dogs, incubation period is reported to be from 3 to 24 weeks after exposure (average 3-8 weeks) and 2-24 weeks in cats (average 4-6 weeks) – keep in mind that because of control measures in dogs, cats have now replaced dogs as the most commonly rabid domestic animal in North America. What does this mean at the shelter level? Single-housing new intakes should be a priority. In fact, single-housing should be the rule whenever it is possible, in cats especially. You don’t believe this is important? Click here and read this sad story that happened in a shelter in North Dakota …
4/Know the symptoms: rabies should be suspected in ANY mammal that suddenly develops profound behavioral changes or paralysis or both. There are plenty of great information out there but I watched the following video on Youtube that I think gives a very good overview of what everybody should know. Don’t hesitate to share it with your new pet owners as well this is a great way to remind them how important it is to vaccinate their pets. Be aware that for control of rabies in dog populations to be effective, vaccinating a minimum of 70% of dogs is theoretically necessary. Same goes for cats!
5/You were unfortunately bitten (by a dog, a cat, a raccoon…)? When working a shelter, there is definitely a high risk that, despite all your precautions, this will happen. One important thing to keep in mind: in humans, rabies infection is uncurable… So take it seriously: first wash the wound thoroughly with ethanol (45% or higher) or povidone iodine solutions (Betadine®). Then go straight to see a physician and mention that you are working in a shelter and rabies might be a concern: he/she will take all the appropriate measures (including vaccination) to be sure you will not get infected !