According to a recent report issued by the Kentucky State Veterinarian's office, the number of reported cases of rabies rose from 45 in 2008 to 46 in 2009. However, the number of cases has doubled in the last five years.
Two of the confirmed cases of rabies in 2009 were horses. Veterinarians warn that even counties not reporting cases of rabies could be home to rabid animals that pose a danger to all domestic animals.
"The important thing everybody needs to understand is that just because there's not a reported case in the county doesn't mean there is not potential for rabies in literally every county in Kentucky," said Craig Carter, DVM, PhD, director of the Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center (LDDC).
Carter said although the LDDC does not conduct rabies testing, it will harvest samples and forward them to the state veterinarian laboratory in Frankfort.
Rabies is a viral disease that affects the nervous system and is almost always fatal in animals. It can be transmitted through the saliva or bite of an infected animal. While in most cases symptoms appear soon after exposure, the virus can sometimes take months to appear.
Initial signs and symptoms of the disease include fever, aggression, and personality changes that eventually progress into a hypersensitivity to light and sound followed by drooling, paralysis, and respiratory failure.
The only way to definitively diagnose rabies is from a post-mortem sample of brain tissue. Wild animals suspected of having rabies are tested upon capture, while domestic animals are placed in quarantine and tested after natural death or necessary euthanasia.
Vaccines are available for dogs, cats, ferrets, and horses. The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) now lists rabies vaccination as part of the core vaccine requirements for horses. The first vaccination is given in a three-part series, depending on the horse's age and history, and that is followed by annual boosters. Companion animals are required by law to be vaccinated, and many only need boosters every three years.
"There is no prudent reason not to vaccinate our dogs, cats, and ferrets for a disease with the public health significance of rabies and a nearly 100% case fatality rate," said John Poe, DVM, and state public health veterinarian, in a statement to Kentucky veterinarians.
While rabies is most common in wild animals such as skunks and bats, domestic animals (including horses) are susceptible if bitten. It can be transmitted to humans if they are exposed to the saliva, discharge from the eyes and nose of an infected animal, or an infected wound. When handling potentially infected animals, exposed skin should be covered and animal control or the local veterinarian should be notified.
If bitten by a rabid animal you should wash the wound thoroughly and notify a doctor or go to the emergency room immediately. Avoid contact with wild animals, particularly those exhibiting unusual behavior.
Natalie Voss is a UK equine communications intern and undergraduate student in equine science.
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Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.