If a dog bites a person or another animal, there are two ways to make sure that the bite couldn’t have resulted in transmission of rabies virus:

  • Euthanize the dog and test the brain for rabies.
  • Ensure the dog is still neurologically normal 10 days later (if this is the case, then the dog could not have been shedding rabies virus at the time of the bite).

In some scenarios people may be quicker to use option #1, for example if the plan is to ultimately euthanize the dog regardless. If the dog is seriously ill and/or it’s not humane to keep the dog alive for 10 days then this makes sense.  Euthanasia is often elected for particularly aggressive dogs as well, since it eliminates the risk of more bites during the 10 day observation period. However, it’s important to consider that if there’s a problem with the sample or the test, then one always needs to err on the side of caution and assume it was rabid, unless there is a definitive negative test result.  It’s pretty unlikely to happen, but you never know.

A recent case highlighted why that consideration is valid.

Personnel from an East Texas vet clinic euthanized a dog that was showing potential signs of rabies. It had bitten a veterinary technician during an examination and the owners elected to euthanize the dog because of its poor health.  That’s all reasonable, and they obviously needed to test the dog for rabies under the circumstances. The head was removed and sent via courier to the diagnostic lab.

Then… well, your guess seems to be as good as UPS’s as to where the head is now.

As a result, the technician and other people who handed the dog will need rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which is far from convenient or cheap (the article quotes a cost of $80,000 to treat all the exposed staff). Even if they find the package, if it takes more than a couple of days it’s unlikely that the head will be in an acceptable state for testing (especially when you consider the likely ambient temperature in warehouse or shipping truck in Texas).

In a case like this, euthanasia was the right response and this is just a very bad-luck outcome. It’s a reminder, though, of what can happen, and why I like to see observation done before euthanasia if there’s not a pressing need to euthanize the biting animal immediately.

I have to wonder, though, what happened to the head? It didn’t just vanish. Will it turn up eventually (useless for testing and very stinky)? Where do packages disappear to? Hopefully someone else didn’t get it by mistake – not a nice package to open if you’re not expecting it.