Rabies is a very serious disease. We’re very lucky in Canada that in most parts of the country the prevalence of this disease is now quite low, in large part due to wildlife control and vaccination efforts. Unfortunately that also seems to make some people quite lax when it comes to (common sense) things like vaccinating their pets and avoiding direct contact with rabies vectors such as foxes, skunks, raccoons and bats. Here are some of the most common misconceptions (or lapses in judgement) that we encounter.
1. My cat never goes outside, so it doesn’t need to be vaccinated for rabies.
FALSE. False false false. It seems to be very difficult to get this message across to pet owners. Your cat may live inside, but cats can escape. Even my own cat, who has lived indoors his entire life for more than a decade, one day suddenly decided to explore the great outdoors. Was I ever glad he was vaccinated at that point! Even more importantly, bats – currently the most common rabies vector in most parts of Canada – can get into your house. This happens even in the middle of large cities, and to people who live in apartments. If your cat is unvaccinated and happens to have contact with a bat that gets in your house, kitty could be facing a 6-month quarantine which is not easy or fun for anyone.
2. My cat had all its shots when it was a kitten, so it’s protected.
FALSE. Cats (and dogs, and ferrets) need at least TWO rounds of rabies vaccination before they are considered fully protected. Generally they get one dose at 3 months of age (with their last set of puppy/kitten shots) – 30 days later they are considered "primarily vaccinated". The animal then needs a booster 1 year later (regardless of the type of vaccine used) at which point it is then considered fully vaccinated for 1 to 3 years, depending on which vaccine was used. As soon as that 1 to 3 year window expires, kitty once again faces a 6-month quarantine if it is potentially exposed to rabies, which is just what happened to a dog in North Carolina recently.
3. If I have a bat in my house, I should get rid of it as soon as possible.
MAYBE. If you see a bat fly into your house through a door or a window, you can definitely try to shoo it back out as soon as possible as long as you don’t touch it (lots of people use things like tennis rackets or brooms for this, but remember you don’t need to hit the bat). If you’re not comfortable with that, trap the bat under a big bowl or bucket, or in a closed room with no animals or people, and call animal control (or a friendly neighbour) to help you with it.
BUT if the bat has touched any person or if there is a chance that your cat (or dog) may have touched the bat or been playing with it do not let the bat escape. A risk assessment needs to be performed in these cases to determine if the amount of contact with the bat could have been enough to transmit rabies virus. If the answer is no, the bat can then be released, but if the answer is yes, then it is very important to keep the bat so it can be tested for rabies.
Have your pets vaccinated for rabies by a veterinarian on a regular basis. Make sure they are up-to-date and that you (or your veterinarian) have the records to show it. It is by far the best insurance for preventing rabies in your pets, and avoiding unpleasant, long and difficult quarantine periods. It is now summer in Canada and wildlife (including bats) are active – don’t wait, get your pets updated today.