Rabies is no joke


It was a lousy day for a rabies clinic — rainy, windy, cold. Spring playing an April Fool’s joke. The Animal Shelter of Martha’s Vineyard sponsors this annual event, offering reduced-cost rabies vaccinations for cats and dogs (and the occasional ferret). Edgartown Animal Control Officer Barbara Prada coordinates local veterinarians to take shifts (legally, rabies vaccinations must be administered by licensed veterinarians, or under their direct supervision). Shelter staff, ACOs, and community-spirited volunteers donate several hours of their weekend to herd pets and people through a sometimes chaotic process of filling out the necessary paperwork (in triplicate), and moving animals and owners along safely and smoothly, helping protect our Island from a truly horrific disease.

Rabies is no joke. A virus that attacks brain and nervous system, it is shed in the saliva of infected animals, and can be contracted by bites, scratches, and contact with that saliva. Infections have also occurred in spelunkers who inhaled airborne virus shed by bats in caves. Rare cases of infection via corneal transplant have also been reported. In the United States, the most common wildlife carriers are skunks, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, and bats, but human exposure frequently occurs through contact with unvaccinated cats and dogs. Unless treated immediately after exposure, rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms manifest.

Islanders tend to be blasé about rabies since, to date, we have not had any cases here, but there is plenty on the mainland. When people are reluctant to vaccinate their pets for rabies, I remind them that it’s required by law for both dogs and cats. End of story. Well, actually, I have several other stories. I call them my “How We Came THIS CLOSE to Having Rabies on the Vineyard” stories. I’ll share just one.

Once upon a time I had clients with two cats. They lived in Connecticut most of the year, where their cats were strictly indoors, but summered in Lambert’s Cove, where the kitties were allowed to roam outside. One winter, a bat got into their Connecticut house. The cats caught it. Luckily, the owners saw this happen. Luckily, the cats killed the bat. (OK, not lucky for the bat but lucky for us: read on.) Luckily, the owners had the dead bat tested for rabies. Unfortunately, it tested positive. Unfortunately, the cats were not vaccinated. (This was before feline vaccination was required by law.) Unfortunately, the risk of the cats developing rabies was deemed too great, and both were euthanized. Tragic.

Now here’s the point. Had the owners not seen the cats catch the bat; had the bat escaped and flown away; had the owners not had it tested: Had any of these things happened, the family would not have known their cats were incubating rabies. It can take up to six months from time of exposure until clinical signs occur. So the family would have returned here for the summer, letting the cats roam the woods of Lambert’s Cove, where they could have developed full-blown rabies and introduced it to the Vineyard.

So I’m a big believer in rabies prevention, including low-cost clinics. But I’ll tell you a secret. I hate working at them. I do it every year, but I hate it. Why? Because I’ve seen too much trauma in 35 years of practice. I know what can happen with animals in unfamiliar or high-stress environments. I know little things, like just because a dog is on a leash doesn’t mean it’s well-controlled. I’ve seen two leashed dogs fight, their leashes entangling and wrapping around an owner’s legs, with serious consequences. I’ve seen people mauled by their own pets while trying to break up fights. I’ve seen big dogs kill little ones. Dogs with their throats torn open. Cats with broken backs from dogs grabbing and shaking before anyone could intervene. I’ve seen a leashed dog bolt, pulling an elderly owner down, the fall resulting in the person breaking his hip. Need I go on?

So that miserable April morning, arriving at the clinic, I saw two people, their leashed dogs nose-to-nose. “Keep your dogs separate, please!” I called out. Were they just ignoring me? I shouted louder. “Keep your dogs separate, please!” Apparently my good intentions (not wanting human or canine to leave the event bleeding) were overshadowed by my lack of gentility, as one of the owners later scolded me. “We need to practice our Good Mornings,” I was told. “I’m happy to say Good Morning, as soon as I know your dog is safe,” I replied. Things went downhill from there. Suffice it to say, I’m not gonna be her favorite veterinarian anytime soon. Happily, by the end of the clinic, we had vaccinated many animals whose owners had braved the weather, and many people had expressed thanks to all the volunteers.

Exactly one week later, getting a head start on my Passover cooking, I was cutting vegetables on a big professional-grade mandolin slicer I had gotten for my birthday. Momentarily distracted, I sliced two of my fingertips instead of the celery. Non sequitur? I think not. While the Emergency Room doc injected me with lidocaine and stitched me back together, we traded stories. What kind of suture? Which disinfectant? Oh look, I use that same product on bleeding animals. The conversation proceeded to dog bites, and the effect of decades of treating the worst of the worst, of knowing firsthand what can happen when dog-to-dog or dog-to-human interactions go awry. It was nice to talk with someone who understood that when you’ve seen what we’ve seen, of course we have an overabundance of caution. So forgive me if I forget to say Good Morning before loudly advising you to keep pets separate in high-risk situations, or discouraging your child from playing with strange dogs, or asking you to step back in the exam room when we’re working on your pet. We’re just trying to keep everyone safe. Now, if only I can learn to do the same with my fingers and that mandolin slicer.