Vaccinate your pets against rabies

Posted July 16, 2012, at 4:05 p.m.

It’s an easy way to eliminate health risks not only for your pets but for you and your neighbors: Vaccinate them against rabies.

The number of confirmed rabies cases in Maine this year is on the rise. As of July 2, there were 51 cases, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In comparison, there were about 65 in total each year for the last three years.

Rabies is a deadly viral infection that spreads from the saliva of an infected animal through a bite or broken skin. The virus travels to the brain and causes swelling and inflammation. Once symptoms start — such as general weakness, convulsions, fever and delirium — the person rarely survives, even with treatment.

State Veterinarian Don Hoenig estimates that only about 50 percent of dogs and cats in Maine receive the rabies vaccine. Many more pets should be getting vaccinated, indicating more work is needed to educate the public about the disease.

It’s a particularly scary disease for the rural state, where domestic animals are often in the same vicinity as wild ones. Foxes, raccoons, skunks and bats are common transmitters. Though the U.S. Department of Agriculture drops bait packets containing the rabies vaccine in areas frequented by wild animals, it’s only one of many measures needed to prevent the spread of the virus.

Pet owners can do their part by knowing the veterinarians and shelters with vaccination programs closest to them. They may look to the Maine CDC for an updated list of clinics.

The Maine CDC also provides quarterly updates about the number and location of rabies incidents. In the first half of 2012, 30 raccoons, 15 skunks, two cats, two grey foxes, one woodchuck and one bat were reported to have rabies.

Cumberland and Kennebec counties each had nine confirmed rabies incidents while Knox had eight; York, seven; Penobscot, five; Oxford, three; Piscataquis, two; Waldo, two; Sagadahoc, one; Somerset, one; Lincoln, one; Franklin, one; Androscoggin, one; Aroostook, zero; and Hancock, zero.

Not only is vaccinating a dog or cat — and keeping up with booster shots — important for health reasons, it’s the law. A violation is considered a civil one and can result in a fine. Your dog also has to have proof of a rabies vaccine in order to get registered.

Kevin Upton is an animal control officer in Houlton and president of the Maine Animal Control Association. The best way to get more people vaccinating their pets is through public awareness campaigns, he said. People can post notices at local events. Shelters and veterinarians can send out updates. And Mainers selling dogs and cats can provide more information to pet purchasers.

The rabies vaccine is relatively inexpensive, with prices around $10 at shelters. It’s important for people to take personal responsibility when it comes to preventing rabies. There’s no reason not to protect your pets and the people living with or near them.