As is typical for this time of year, the annual US rabies report has been published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (Ma et al, 2018).

Here are some highlights:

  • 4454 rabid animals were identified across the country. This is certainly a marked underestimate of the actual number since most rabid animals aren’t seen or tested.
  • This number is down 9% from 2016. I’m not sure what that means (or if it means anything). Rabies numbers can be impacted by true changes in rabies cases, or they can increase or decrease based on how intensively people are looking. Changes in surveillance can result in changes in numbers, even when the disease is unchanged (this is known as surveillance bias).
  • The most commonly affected species were the usual suspects and the known rabies reservoir species:
    • Bats: 32%
    • Raccoons: 29%
    • Skunks: 21%
    • Foxes: 7%
  • There were regional differences in the predominant rabies virus strains (fox, raccoon, etc.), as shown in the figures below. Raccoon rabies diagnoses were concentrated along the eastern part of the US, consistent with the past.
  • As usual, cats led the rabid domestic animals, accounting for 6% of cases, followed by dogs (1.4%) and cattle (0.8%). The higher number of affected cats likely reflects large numbers of stray cats and cats with uncontrolled outdoor access, their tendency to tangle with rabies reservoir species and low overall vaccination rates. Cats were mainly identified in the northeast.
  • Two human cases were identified during the year. One had been bitten by a dog while travelling in India, a country where canine rabies is rampant. The other acquired rabies in the US from a bat.

Rabies remains an ever-present threat in the US, like many other countries. The bad thing about rabies is that it’s almost invariably fatal. The good thing is that it’s almost completely preventable.

Keys to rabies prevention include:

  • Avoiding contact with wildlife.
  • Vaccinating domestic animals, both for their health and because they can act as a bridge between wildlife and people.
  • Providing post-exposure prophylaxis to potentially exposed individuals.
  • Educating the public so they know more about rabies, how to avoid it and when to seek healthcare. This is a critical aspect that’s often the weak link. People get rabies because they don’t seek healthcare after an exposure.

More information about rabies can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources -Pets page.