By: Alexandra Young: Community Outreach Programs Manager
Rabies has been found in ancient literary works dating back as far as 300 B.C., including a paper by Aristotle. Rabies is a viral disease that infects the nervous system, which leads to horrific symptoms and causing great fear worldwide. Even in very early days, it was clear that the virus was carried via saliva (and brain tissue), and humans were susceptible to catching it through animal bites. Bats and skunks are mentioned most often in history, but dogs have also been noted as an ever-present species that carries the virus.
Early symptoms in humans may be flu-like. But later, more unique symptoms include:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Excessive salivation
- Fear brought on by attempts to drink fluids because of difficulty swallowing water
- Fear brought on by air blown on the face
- Partial paralysis
The Rabies Vaccine and Treatment
The origin of the word rabies is debatable. It could come from the Sanskrit word “rabhas” (to do violence) or the Latin word “rabere” (to rage). The ancient Greeks called rabies “lyssa” (violence), in reference to the symptoms.
The French chemist Louis Pasteur created the first rabies vaccine for humans in the 1880s after conducting several experiments with chicken, cattle, dogs, and rabbits. His animal studies showed promise, but he wanted more time to purify his vaccine before trying it on himself. When a 9-year-old boy named Joseph Meister was bitten at least 14 times by a rabid dog on July 6, 1885, a local doctor told the family that Pasteur was their only hope.
After consulting with several doctors who said the child was a “dead boy walking,” Pasteur agreed to treat him. Joseph received 13 inoculations in 11 days and made a complete recovery. The word leaked out and patients came streaming in the world over. At the time of Pasteur’s death nine years later, more than 20,000 people had been given his post-exposure prophylactic (PEP) vaccine.
Even with the news of Pasteur’s treatment spreading like wildfire through word of mouth, pets were not routinely vaccinated against rabies until the 1920s, when vaccinations were developed for a variety of domesticated animals.
Why Vaccinate Your Pets Against Rabies?
Today in the United States, most of our pets are vaccinated against this contagious and deadly virus. Usually, people don’t think too much about it anymore and it gets downplayed, which can be dangerous to us and the animals we love. Currently, cases of rabid cats outnumber those of dogs, and wild animal cases involve mostly raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats. One must be extremely careful with bats since they rarely look sick, but they can squeeze through very tiny openings in our homes and expose us and our pets to this deadly disease.
How Rabies Is Diagnosed
The only way to definitively diagnose rabies is through a direct fluorescence antibody (dFA) test. Samples of brain tissue are processed in a very specific way (including being refrigerated during shipment), and the test must be performed by a state-approved laboratory. Therefore, this test can only be done on animals after they have died or been humanely euthanized.
A veterinarian may be able to make a clinical diagnosis on a living animal, based on history, symptoms (drooling, agitation, loss of motor functions, confusion), environmental conditions, and lifestyle/risk factors. But early stages of rabies can be confused with other medical conditions that have similar symptoms.
PREVENTION is the key to avoiding heart-breaking situations. Furthermore, those not working in the animal welfare industry may not realize that there is no way to test an animal (wild or pet) for rabies unless it is deceased.
Don’t take this unnecessary risk with your family and beloved pets. Contact Humane Pennsylvania (humanepa.org) or our Humane Veterinary Hospitals (hvhospitals.org) today to discuss the different ways you can access affordable basic veterinary care.