Rabies cases often “overhyped” but remain a serious issue

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For the past two years Tarrant County has seen a decrease in the number of animals that tested positive for rabies, with only 20 animals testing positive in 2015 (as of October) according to the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS).

However, both city and state animal control officers and the TDSHS are continually trying to prevent the spread of rabies by offering low cost vaccinations and classes teaching residents about responsible pet ownership. They are also maintaining a policy of humanely euthanizing high risk animals that are suspected of being infected.

The Threat of Rabies 

In the past five years in Tarrant County, 124 animals tested positive for rabies, most of them skunks, according to the TDSHS. However, only one person in Texas in the past five years developed the rabies virus.

“Rabies in humans is rare typically because most people are aware if they have come in contact with an animal and they get the post-exposure shots,” said Christine Mann, a press officer for TDSHS.

Randall Kennedy of Dallas Fort Worth Critter Control said he had never seen an animal with rabies while on the job.

“It’s overhyped,” Kennedy said.

Animal Control officer Charles Hernandez agreed. He said that people reporting animals they think have rabies, but turn out not to, is a common problem in Tarrant County.

“A lot of people think, ‘That dog has rabies!'” Hernandez said. “But the thing is, rabies and distemper have a lot of the same symptoms.”   

Despite the hype, Hernandez said that rabies is still a serious issue that can prove to be deadly.

“With rabies, you get it and you’re done,” Hernandez said, “unless you get the vaccines right away.”

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), once symptoms of rabies begin to show in humans or animals, such as dizziness, aggression, paralysis, or hallucinations, the disease is almost always fatal.

“People think they are going to be foaming at the mouth,” Hernandez said. “That’s a myth. That’s a lot of TV.”  

For someone who has been bit by an animal they suspect has rabies, he or she will have to undergo a series of four shots over two weeks if they have never be vaccinated before or two shots over three days if they have been previously vaccinated, according to the CDC.

Fort Worth resident Sean Aldridge had to receive rabies shots after he was bit by a wild dog that had come onto his property to attack Aldridge’s puppies. Aldridge said the wild dog bit him on his right thigh and left a mark that “was kind of weird because it was like a smiley face.” He said the shots were the worst part.

“I’ve had a lot of shots. It was the most painful shot I’ve ever experienced,” Aldridge said. “I told the nurse, you need to hurry up because I’m about to come off this table. It was bad.”

Preventive Measures in Tarrant County

The city of Fort Worth requires every dog, cat and ferret to have their first rabies vaccine by four months of age, receive a booster 12 months after that shot and then be vaccinated at least once every three years after that.

Residents cannot receive the proper license from the city until proof of that first rabies vaccination is provided. Failure to follow these city ordinances could result in fines, citations or mandatory attendance of a responsible pet ownership class.

During one of these responsible pet ownership classes, Hernandez stressed the importance of having those licenses up to date.

“Rabies and city ordinance tags have to be on the dog all the time,” Hernandez said. “If you get nothing else from this class, get this.”

Fort Worth residents can get their pet vaccinated at any veterinarian in the area, but the vet must provide an official rabies tag for it to count in the eyes of the city. According to the city website, a one or three year license, microchip and rabies vaccination cost $12.

The Texas Coalition for Animal Protection (TCAP) also offers walk in vaccine appointments at their Fort Worth Clinic, 2400 Westport Parkway, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.

They also offer low cost vaccines and other medical tests on Tuesday nights from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Fort Worth Animal Care and Control Shelter. Rabies vaccines from TCAP cost $5.

“There are still rabies cases in north Texas yearly, so we would say the vaccine is very important,” said Jessica Smith, Director of Clinic Operations for TCAP. “Pet owners need to stay up to date with their cities ordinances, and keep their pets up to date with all vaccines.”

The TCAP Facebook page also advertises other vaccine clinic locations and times along with a photo for their puppy of the day who game to get their vaccines. Residents who would like to support TCAP can link their Kroger cards through the Community Rewards program.

“We want to provide a service for those who cannot pay full service veterinary clinic fees for preventative services,” Smith said. “So that everyone who wants a pet will be able to properly take care of it.”

In addition to requiring vaccines for all pets, the Fort Worth Animal Control Agency has protocols in place regarding what they classify as high-risk animals. These animals, (bats, skunks, foxes, coyotes and raccoons) are the ones most likely to carry the rabies virus in Fort Worth.

“You’ve got the five carries and they are inside the city,” Hernandez said.

According to Hernandez, if any of these animals are found in Fort Worth and suspected to have rabies they are humanely euthanized and sent for testing. If found to be positive, the TDSHS will then work with local animal control officers to find potential animals or people that could have had contact with the animal. Any dogs suspected of rabies must be quarantined for 10 days in a Fort Worth Animal Care and Control Center to see if symptoms develop.

In his 14 years as a animal control officer, Hernandez said he had seen two dogs that were infected by the rabies virus.

“That’s how far and advanced we’ve come with these vaccinations,” Hernandez said.

One of the cases he saw was a cocker spaniel who got in a fight with a raccoon while he was out on a family camping trip. A couple weeks later the symptoms started showing.

“He just wasn’t himself,” Hernandez said. “He was acting lethargic and sickly, so they took him to the vet. The vet didn’t feel comfortable with the way the dog was acting, so the dog was quarantined.”

The dog continued to get worse, Hernandez said, to the point where he was chewing on his own leg. The dog was euthanized and tests confirmed it had contracted rabies.

While that dog got rabies from a raccoon, most rabies cases in Tarrant County in the past five years have been in skunks, according to the TDSHS. Bats are the second most common carrier and the City of Fort Worth’s website has a section warning against exposure to bats.

According to the site, bats are particularly dangerous because bat bites are not always visible, so if possible the bat should be captured and submitted for rabies testing. The city advises residents to contact animal control if they need help catching the bat.

Hernandez offers similar advice if someone sees a bat.

“Get your children away from it,” Hernandez said. “Get everyone away from it and call animal control as fast as you can.”

Preventive Measures in Texas 

TDSHS has its own programs that it promotes in order to reduce the spread of rabies. One such program is its Oral Rabies Vaccine Program. The program started in 1995 and every winter since then the TDSHS has dropped doses of rabies vaccines from an aircraft over wildlife areas in Texas.

According to a TDSHS press release: “When wild animals eat the vaccine packets, coated in tasty fishmeal crumbles, they become immune and can’t spread rabies to livestock, pets or people.”

This year’s vaccine drop started Jan. 11. TDSHS plans to drop 1 million doses of vaccine along the Texas and Mexico border and 1.4 million in the skunk study area, which covers parts of 17 counties from Madison and Walker in the north, southwest to Bastrop, then southeast to Wharton and Fort Bend, according to the TDSHS press release.

Another program that TDSHS runs is an annual poster contest for students in kindergarten to eighth grade. The contest gets about 1,000 entries per year, according to Mann, a press officer for TDSHS.

“We hope the poster competition educates kids on which animals are high-risk animals, shows them they can admire all wildlife from a distance, educates people to make sure all pets are current on rabies vaccination and teach kids what to do if they are exposed or potentially exposed,” Mann said.

The winners are chosen by the employees of TDSHS and the posters are put on display in the offices and online. The winning artists are also given a cash prize ranging from $50-300.

While these programs are useful, Mann said that making sure pets are vaccinated is more important.

“Pets would have the first exposure to rabies that  potentially could spread to the family,” Mann said. “The most effective way to prevent the spread of rabies is to vaccinate family pets.”

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