By Dr. Jessica Vogelsang

"Rabies" is a word that strikes fear into the hearts of pet owners around the world. And it should: Each year, more than 50,000 people die from this fatal neurologic disease.

Although strict rabies vaccination protocols in the United States have limited the death rate in this country to fewer than 10 people a year, recent data indicates that the number of cases in the wild is on the rise.

Rabies is a virus that attacks the nervous system. It is easily transmissible through saliva and is unique in its ability to affect many animals, from people to dogs, cats, cows, skunks, raccoons, foxes and bats. Once clinical signs of disease develop, it is almost invariably fatal. Despite its presence in many animals, the majority of human exposures worldwide come from our friend, the dog.

It's not uncommon for specific regions to have surges in rabies incidences when a wild population experiences an outbreak. When people move into wilderness areas to build homes or to enjoy the open space, their chance of encountering a rabid animal increases. This raises the question: How should owners protect themselves and their dogs from the disease?

First, make sure your pet is up-to-date on its rabies vaccination according to the laws of your local jurisdiction. Most areas require a vaccination once every three years, though some locals require a yearly vaccination. Almost all rabies vaccinations on the market for dogs today have been shown to last at least three years via duration of immunity studies. As always, if there are questions about what is appropriate for your pet, consult your veterinarian.

For people who work with at-risk populations of animals, pre-exposure rabies vaccinations can be given. If a person is bitten by an animal whose rabies status is unknown or suspect, postexposure rabies vaccinations can be given to prevent the virus from reaching the nervous system. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30,000 to 40,000 people a year in the United States receive this postexposure prophylaxis. When given in a timely manner, it is very effective in preventing a full-blown case of rabies.

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