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Northwest pet owners must be more vigilant about rabies.

Byline: Patricia Joy Shea For The Register-Guard

Before I entered veterinary school, I worked in the tourism industry. One promotional slogan I remember from the 1980s was, "Oregon ... you're more than welcome."

Another, more infamous slogan from an earlier time was, "Visit - but don't stay."

One unwanted visitor that is now finding a foothold in our state and county is rabies - an inevitably and universally fatal viral disease that can infect people as well as domestic and wild animals.

Perhaps as a legacy from those days in the visitor industry, I love to talk to clients about promoting their pets' health and wellness. But here's one phone call I really hate to get: "I saw my pet playing with (or killing, or being bitten by) a bat."

I ask: "Does your pet have a current rabies vaccination?" If the answer is yes, the next step is easy - visit your veterinarian and have the pet revaccinated against rabies.

If the answer is no, then the pet and its owner may have some very big concerns in store.

Compared with many other parts of the United States and the world, rabies is still relatively uncommon in Oregon. Until recently, the bat was the only wild mammal reservoir responsible for transmission of rabies in Oregon and Washington.

In the last few years, rabid ground-dwelling mammals have also been identified within our state's borders, including a fox in the Grants Pass area. Skunk rabies has been reported in California, so this disease variant may also appear soon in Oregon.

Raccoon rabies is widespread on the Eastern Seaboard. As far as we know, raccoons in the Northwest do not carry rabies, but someday this may change.

About 10 percent of bats tested for rabies in Oregon test positive for this disease. Just last month in Eugene, an unvaccinated cat was found playing with a bat that tested positive for rabies at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Oregon State University.

There is no, repeat no, post-exposure treatment for domestic animals that have been exposed to a wild animal known or suspected to be carrying rabies. Human beings can be treated after exposure, but their pets cannot.

There is pre-exposure treatment - and that is a vaccination, available from veterinarians for dogs, cats, ferrets and horses. Regular visits to your family veterinarian for a physical examination and any recommended vaccinations, including one for rabies, is the best option for all pets.

If that is not possible due to financial constraints, several public and private clinics offer rabies vaccinations for a reasonable cost or at no charge, depending on the client population that the organization serves.

Dogs are required to have a rabies vaccination to qualify for a dog license, but there is no mandatory licensing program for cats in Lane County. Nonetheless, it is extremely important to vaccinate cats against rabies as well.

Nationally, twice as many cats as dogs are reported to have rabies each year. As predators whose nature is to engage in a lot of unescorted roaming, cats actually come into contact with bats far more frequently than other pets.

Even indoor-only cats can be exposed to rabid bats. Bats are everywhere, even in urban areas, and they do get into homes through open windows, chimneys, doors and vents.

This is not a diatribe against bats. Most bats are not vampires, as may be popularly supposed, but rather fruit and insect eaters. They play a vital role in our ecosystems and control insects, including mosquitoes.

Bats are active at night, especially in warm weather. A bat that is out during the day or that allows a domestic pet or human being to touch or catch it is probably sick and should be avoided.

There is no way to know whether a bat or other animal is rabid simply by looking it. The conventional image of a rabid animal foaming at the mouth is mostly a clich; the variety of neurologic and other clinical signs that may be associated with rabies is legion.

If your pet has contacted a bat or you notice a bat in your home or yard, do not touch it or pick it up. The rabies virus is carried in an infected animal's saliva, so it is most easily transmitted by bite wounds.

Because it can be very difficult to identify bite puncture wounds on a fur-bearing pet, and because a rabid animal's saliva could transmit the disease without a bite if it gets onto a mucous membrane or a cut or crack in the victim's skin, a pet or person known or suspected of having contact with a bat may have been exposed to rabies.

Human beings who have had contact with a known or potentially rabid bat should contact their physician or the Lane County Public Health Department for further advice.

Unvaccinated pets that have had similar contact must be strictly quarantined and observed for six months - or euthanized.

Human and veterinary public health authorities also may have to be consulted in situations regarding potentially or actually exposed pets that either are not current on their rabies vaccines or never have been vaccinated.

The best way to avoid the stress, worry and expense that such situations cause is to keep all pets current on their rabies vaccinations.

If a potentially rabid bat is found in your home or yard, and if human or animal contact with it may have occurred, do not bury it or throw it away. The bat should be submitted for rabies testing.

If there is no human exposure to the bat, the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at OSU (541-737-3261) can do the testing. If people have been exposed, the Oregon State Public Health Laboratory does the testing. Bats are tested for rabies only when a person or pet has had known or suspected physical contact with them.

Never handle a bat, whether alive, dead or dying, with your bare hands; it can expose you to rabies.

Wear heavy gloves and handle the bat with an instrument such as a shovel or tongs when attempting to place it in a bite-proof, sealed container such as a plastic bucket with a tight-fitting lid.

If someone already has buried the bat, it can be exhumed and possibly may still be tested.

If you think or know that a family pet has interacted or played with the bat, contact a veterinary clinic immediately for advice - do not wait.

Do not ignore rabies! It is here to stay.
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Title Annotation:Local Opinion
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Oct 7, 2012
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