A Chapel Hill, North Carolina woman is suing Orange County in response to quarantine of her dog because of possible rabies exposure. This lawsuit highlights some of the inconsistencies in application of current rules, along with some misunderstandings.

In February, her dog Russell was barking at something under her deck, and that something ended up being a raccoon with rabies. There’s no evidence of a fight or contact, but it can’t be ruled out. Because of this, the dog was considered potentially exposed. Russell was overdue for his rabies booster, so a strict six-month quarantine was required, and the county required that this be done at an approved facility, not in the home. (The alternative option was euthanasia.)

  • The lawsuit is based on the inconsistent application of the rules by various counties. The owner is seeking permission to quarantine the dog at home. This is allowed in many regions, provided there is confidence that the owner is responsible enough to properly quarantine the animal.
  • It’s a reasonable argument that’s based on subjective and variable application of rabies guidelines. Certainly, formal quarantine in a facility offers more containment. The question is when household quarantine is appropriate, in terms of the animal’s risk of exposure and the ability of the household to properly quarantine the animal.

Some other highlights:

Russell was overdue for his rabies vaccine by 46 days.

  • Dogs don’t immediately go from protected to unprotected. Certainly, we want animals to be up-to-date on their vaccines, but some thought needs to go into dealing with potentially exposed overdue animals. The NASPHV Rabies Compendium states "Animals overdue for a booster vaccination need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis (e.g. severity of exposure, time elapsed since last vaccination, number of prior vaccinations, current health status, local rabies epidemiology)."
  • Knowing the age of the dog and the number of previous vaccines would help, but the news article reports vaccinations (plural), suggesting that he’s been vaccinated more than once in the past. In a dog with a relatively low index of exposure that was only overdue by 46 days, it would seem reasonable to consider it protected and treat it as vaccinated (although it’s hard to say this definitively based on a news report that doesn’t give the whole story). It’s a critical point because considering the dog up-to-date would only result in a 45 day observation period as opposed to a strict six-month quarantine. 

The owner’s veterinarian stated that research shows that an animal that is vaccinated regularly is protected for many years, if not a lifetime.

  • Yes and no. Vaccination is quite effective and in most animals probably confers long-lasting protection. However, I’m not aware of research that really shows this. This isn’t a disease where we have good research data about duration of effect of vaccination. I suspect that most dogs that have been regularly vaccinated are well protected. Most does not equal all, and with a disease like rabies, you have to be quite sure.

A rabies antibody titre was measured. This is a blood test indicating the level of anti-rabies antibodies. The veterinarian indicated that the titre showed Russell is currently protected from contracting rabies.

  • Unfortunately, no. TItres tell you antibody levels, but we don’t have good data about what is actually protective. Higher is better, but we can’t say a certain number is absolutely protective. Back to the NASPHV guidelines: "Titers do not directly correlate with protection because other immunologic factors also play a role in preventing rabies, and our abilities to measure and interpret those other factors are not well developed. Therefore, evidence of circulating rabies virus antibodies should not be used as a substitute for current vaccination in managing rabies exposures or determining the need for booster vaccinations in animals". That statement was echoed by North Carolina’s state public health veterinarian, Dr. Carl WIlliams.

This is a tough situation. In many circumstances, home quarantine is a reasonable option. It’s easier on everyone involved, by not separating the dog from the household. It’s also less expensive. However, it inherently comes with some degree of risk to the household and the community. It’s only a reasonable option when it’s certain that people will take "strict quarantine" seriously, and truly quarantine the animal. That’s hard to assess, and regulatory bodies are presumably afraid of assuming liability should they allow someone to quarantine an animal at home and something bad happens (e.g. it develops rabies and exposes people in the household, the owners take it outside where it encounters other animals or people, it escapes…). Determining whether someone can and will properly quarantine an animal isn’t easy, and those issues presumably lead some people to err on the side of caution, and require formal quarantine at an approved facility.

The easiest way to avoid all this: Ensure your pets are properly vaccinated.

  • Catherine

    Loved this article. I am very rabies-phobic and am happy when a trusted site like this one has information on the subject. My dog encountered a possum last week when I took him out in my (fenced) backyard to do his before-bedtime business. Needless to say, I was HORRIFIED! My dog is up to date on his rabies vaccinations (not due for a booster until the end of April 2012,) and there was no evidence of a squabble. The possum froze in place with its mouth open and didn’t climb away until after my dog got bored with him and walked away which happened in less than a minute. This, of course is normal possum behavior – to freeze up. I understand also, from a previous incident of about 2 years ago, that possums are low risk for rabies as far as wild animals go. In any event, as soon as the dog got back into the house, he went straight to the bathtub where he was scrubbed and rinsed profusely. The clothes I was wearing, the tub, the floors he walked on to get to the tub, everything, was washed immediately afterwards. As I said, I am very rabies-phobic. The next day I called his vet and asked if he needed a rabies booster. They said no. From now on though, he will go out at night to do his business on leash only, despite the fenced in yard, because I can’t go through that again.

  • Dr. Weese,

    Dr. Ron Schultz at University of Wisconsin – Madison has been studying the duration and efficacy of the rabies vaccine for several years now. The veterinarian in the article must be referring to that research. I know his preliminary results have been published but it is an on going study and only in year 5 of a 7 year study, so the final results are not available.

    As for titers some of that information has changed as well based on Dr. Schultz, Dr. Richard Ford, Dr. Jean Dodds and others research. I agree not all antibodies are created equal and just based on antibody levels we can not be for certain that an animal is protected in all cases for all diseases. For example the Giardia vaccine or the EPM vaccine for horses both produce antibody levels but the antibodies are not protective for the disease. Rabies however acts similarly to other viruses such as Distemper, Parvo, and Adenovirus and just the presence of antibodies alone shows that the immune system is functioning correctly and is most likely protected. We can not be 100% sure but even if the animal was current on vaccination it is not a 100% guarantee either.

    What happens any differently if the animal was up to date on vaccination? Is there something else that the vaccine does considering that the vaccine manufacturers themselves base their levels of protection on antibody titers? There are vaccinated animals that are not protected but their immune system does not respond to vaccination and would show in titers as not having antibodies. I am sure there are animals out there that will have an antibody titer that for some reason some other component of their immune system does not function and thus does not offer protection however that is not the norm. Being in your postion you have a better understanding than I of percentages of protection and epidemiology and a better understanding that all of vet medicine is based on percentages and that individual animals are going to fit along the curve somewhere. With this thought in mind though why would there be any difference in vaccinated and unvaccinated animals in relation to quarantine? Any individual animal may be a non responder and we do not know which ones. Your statement of “most does not equal all, and with a disease like rabies, you have to be quite sure. ” is true but there is no way to be quite sure even in a vaccinated animal I believe the level of protection for the current rabies vaccines is only 88-90%. You can never be quite sure.

    Like insurance it is based on percentages and an accepted level of protection. If this animal has been previously vaccinated appropriately and currently has antibodies in its system as shown by a titer test it is just as protected as a currently vaccinated animal, so there should be no difference in quarantine unless we are going to quarantine any animal the same length of time regardless of vaccine history.