Rabies Vaccination - Is it Needed?
A common question is - is rabies vaccination really necessary? For me, it is one of those questions that is an easy answer. It is a no-brainer but being a veterinarian I am biased. In addition, over my lifetime, I have had at least four close encounters with rabid animals and see rabies posing a significant risk to humans, horses, and to other animals. When a geographic location has rabies present in the wildlife population then rabies is endemic in the location and vaccination is a must in all livestock and pets.
Places that are physically separated from endemic areas, for example England separated by the English Channel from the rest of Europe, have to maintain strict importation regulations to maintain their freedom from rabies. Provinces such as Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland-Labrador might at first glance qualify but both have had rabies cases reported in the past ten years. The only region in Canada that has not had rabies reported in the past ten years is the Yukon. Canada as a whole would be considered endemic for rabies with the exception of the Yukon. The risk of contacting rabies in the majority of Canada is real (see the table below).
Human Health Risk
Rabies affects both animals and humans. In the past ten years, deaths in humans in Canada included a man from central Alberta in 2006, a 52-year-old man from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia in 2003, and a 9-year-old Quebec boy in 2000. All were associated with or suspected of being bitten by bats. In addition, a man in Ontario was killed by a rabid horse in 2002. Rabid horses pose a serious threat to humans. Therefore, whenever a human is bitten by an animal, the local health unit must be notified.
Horse Health Risk
Horses of all ages are susceptible to rabies. Horses are often exposed because they are curious creatures. They are apt to investigate a wild animal that is acting strangely and may be bit on the muzzle, face and/or lower legs. The clinical signs are highly variable in the horse and may be very non-specific, particularly early in the disease. The disease usually progresses to death in 4 to 5 days, although some horses will survive up to 15 days. In one study, the “furious form” was noted in 43% of rabid horses and clinical signs in some of these animals initially appeared as the “dumb form.” The paralytic form was not observed. Horses that develop the “furious form” show excitement, become vicious, bite, kick, exhibit blind staggers, suddenly fall and may chew themselves or foreign objects.
If an animal is suspected of being rabid or a person thinks that their animal(s) has been exposed to rabies, he/she is required by law to report it. Call your nearest office of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which is listed in the blue pages of the phone book (Guelph 519-837-9400). An inspector from the agency will investigate all calls. There is no effective treatment for rabies. Once clinical signs appear, rabies is almost always fatal. Therefore, it is best to prevent exposure to the virus and ensure that all horses and domestic animals are vaccinated for rabies.
If a member of the public can come in contact with your animals (horses, dogs, and cats including barn cats) then you should ensure that your animals are fully protected from rabies. Stray animals, with unknown vaccination histories, should either be vaccinated or be removed from the premises. From an insurance point of view, there are 2 considerations; firstly does my mortality insurance (for the horse) require or expect that rabies vaccination be kept up-to-date and secondly from a liability aspect does the insurance company expect or require that all animals on the premise be protected against rabies. Check with you insurance agent. Rabies vaccination is considered a core vaccine for horses and is recommended unless there is a documented underlying health problem. In pets, rabies vaccination is required by law.
The need to maintain rabies vaccination was emphasized to me a few years ago when a member of the public attending a horse event was severely bitten by a horse through the bars of the stall. Proof of rabies vaccination for the horse was not readily available and caused a serious concern. The horse could have been ordered to be euthanized by the Public Health Department. Therefore, I recommend that you:
Ensure that all horses are vaccinated for rabies annually as part of the core vaccines unless advised (and written) differently by their veterinarian;
Maintain proof of vaccination for all horses e.g., rabies vaccination certificate;
Carry copies of rabies vaccination certificate to all public events along with the negative Coggins test (negative ELISA test for equine infectious anaemia);
Report all animals suspected of being rabid to CFIA immediately;
Report all cases where a human has been bitten by a horse or other animal to the local health unit.
Equine Rabies Cases in Canada by Province and Ontario by County, 2000 – December 31, 2011.
(Compiled from Canadian Food Inspection Agency website. Accessed Feb 2, 2012)
In the period, 1998-2011 there were no rabies cases in the Yukon. Rabies was present at a low prevalence rate in the Atlantic provinces. Everywhere else in Canada rabies is present endemically in the environment.
Dr. Robert G. Wright, BSc., (Agr.) D.V.M.
Dr. Robert Wright Veterinary Services, Belwood, Ontario