When a dog or cat bites a person, veterinarians are part of the team of health care providers who respond. Knowledge of the pet’s rabies vaccination status is critical because that factor can determine whether the pet is euthanized, strictly quarantined for many months at the owner’s expense, or only has to undergo a few weeks of monitoring.
Local laws ultimately make that determination, but the Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control holds a lot of sway. This is what it has to say on the matter:
(1) Dogs, cats, and ferrets that have never been vaccinated and are exposed to a rabid animal should be euthanized immediately. If the owner is unwilling to have this done, the animal should be placed in strict isolation for 6 months. Isolation in this context refers to confinement in an enclosure that precludes direct contact with people and other animals…
(2) Animals overdue for a booster vaccination should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis based upon severity of exposure, time elapsed since last vaccination, number of previous vaccinations, current health status, and local rabies epidemiology to determine need for euthanasia or immediate revaccination and observation/isolation.
(3) Dogs, cats, and ferrets that are currently vaccinated should be revaccinated immediately, kept under the owner’s control, and observed for 45 days…
Scenario number two is the most difficult for veterinarians and public health officials. How should we handle a dog who is only a “little” overdue but was definitely bitten by a rabid skunk? What about a “very” overdue cat who is exposed to a bat that is not available for testing? Many times the recommendation is to euthanize pets who are overdue on their rabies vaccination, particularly if owners are reluctant to pay for a six month quarantine.
But new research shows that dogs and cats with out-of-date and current rabies vaccinations respond in similar ways to a rabies booster after a potential exposure. The authors of the paper conclude:
Thus, we believe that postexposure management of any previously vaccinated dog or cat exposed to a confirmed or suspected rabid animal should be the same, regardless of vaccination status. Specifically, we believe that appropriate postexposure management for dogs and cats with an out-of-date vaccination status is immediate booster vaccination followed by observation for 45 days, rather than euthanasia or quarantine for 6 months. If additional reassurance is needed, titers could be measured prior to and again 5 to 7 days after booster vaccination to determine whether [the appropriate response to the vaccine] has occurred.
This research is no excuse for letting your pet’s rabies vaccination lapse, or even worse, for not vaccinating them at all. You really don’t want to be put in the position of arguing for your “overdue” pet’s life after a bite, and the recommendation for euthanasia or a strict (and expensive) six month quarantine for unvaccinated animals still stands.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Compendium of animal rabies prevention and control, 2011. National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, Inc. MMWR Recomm Rep. 2011 Nov 4;60(RR-6):1-17.
Comparison of anamnestic responses to rabies vaccination in dogs and cats with current and out-of-date vaccination status. Moore MC, Davis RD, Kang Q, Vahl CI, Wallace RM, Hanlon CA, Mosier DA. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2015 Jan 15;246(2):205-11.