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The Scary Thing About Rabies

The Scary Thing About Rabies

Infection can be insidious and vague, posing a threat to you, your horses, and your pets without you even realizing it
Picture a group of equine veterinary students, all of whom are naturally attracted to a pasture full of cute foals and have been observing them vigilantly. They’ve noticed that a previously healthy baby in their university horse breeding program herd has started acting “off.”

The students bring the mare and foal in question up to the barn to treat what they suspect is a respiratory or viral infection. However, the foal quickly progresses to showing neurologic signs and is biting his tongue. About the same time, staff discover a fox den in the pasture. By now, the suspected diagnosis is rabies, and the foal is euthanized. He tests positive post-mortem, and more than a dozen exposed veterinary students, staff, and faculty must undergo a preventive rabies shot cycle.

Betsy Greene, MS, PhD, professor and equine extension specialist at the University of Arizona’s School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences, in Tucson, recalls this incident, which took place several years ago at another university. “It was a familiar scenario for early rabies signs in horses,” she says, “Simply, ‘Somethin’ ain’t right.’ ”

If the students and staff at a veterinary teaching hospital—who arguably are on alert for subtle clinical signs and potential exposures all the time—can expose themselves to this always-fatal zoonotic (passed between humans and animals) disease, think how easy it is for a horse owner to do the same.

If all your pets and every single animal you come into contact with are vaccinated according to veterinary guidelines, you can stop reading now. But if not (and seriously, who knows the vaccination status of friends’—let alone strangers’—animals?), you need to know how rabies spreads, how to recognize it, how you can prevent it, and what to do if you suspect it. Read on to find out what to do and what not to do to keep yourself and your horses safe from rabies.

Understanding Transmission

Common rabies hosts include bats, foxes, raccoons, and skunks. Bobcats, cougars, and coyotes are also occasional reservoirs.

Infected (rabid) animals transmit the rabies virus via saliva when they bite or, much less commonly, when their saliva gets introduced to uninfected mammals through skin wounds or via mucous membranes such as the eyes, mouth, or nose. The rabies virus, Rhabdoviridae lyssavirus, then travels through the peripheral nervous system to the brain, where it attacks the central nervous system.

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