Area veterinarians respond to increasing presence of rabies

Veterinarian Andrew Dean, owner of LaPorte Animal Clinic, vaccinated 25 horses for rabies on a single day during the second week of July this year. The following day he had appointments to vaccinate 15 more. His wildly busy schedule followed by a day or two confirmation of rabies and the death of a bull in Weld County.

Ever since rabies crept into the Northern Colorado area from the Arkansas River Valley four years ago, Dean has been strongly advising his clients to vaccinate their horses. Many of them have understood the need to have their animals protected, but others have been slower to recognize the seriousness of the problem.

Some whose animals are old say they are willing to accept the risk of their horses contracting and dying from the neurological disease. According to Dean, what these people don’t understand is that a rabid animal can put other animals and humans at risk for contracting the disease which is always fatal.

“Humans don’t need to get bitten to get rabies,” Dean said. “It can be transmitted through saliva, tears or spinal fluid.”

He learned his lesson early when living in Pennsylvania after graduation from veterinary school. While questioning a grandfather and father about their sick horse, the teenage son offered information about a dead skunk found in their barn. By the time the skunk tested positive for rabies, the three men and Dean had come into close enough contact with the horse that all of them needed treatment. The course of shots required is effective only before the onset of the disease.

“Rabies can be extremely tough to diagnose,” Dean said. “There are two types. Symptoms of the aggressive form include combativeness, violent behavior and sensitivity to touch and other kinds of stimulation. The “dumb” form shows up as lethargy, weakness or lameness in one or more limbs, and inability of the animal to make sounds or raise its head because of paralyzed neck or head muscles. In the early stage when an animal has only mild lameness, rabies is often not immediately suspected.

Dr. Eddie Taylor said that while rabies is not common in horses, the presence of the disease in two horses in different premises in Weld County this spring, is cause for concern. Taylor, who has a mobile equine practice in Northern Colorado, said most of his clients have been conscientious about vaccinating their animals. “Rabies is on the rise across the country,” he said. “It’s not going to go away.” He believes the disease is increasing because more people are living in rural areas with their pets and wild animals are becoming more acclimated to living in urban areas.

While the vaccine prevents the disease in dogs and cats for two to three years, an annual vaccination is necessary for horses. Taylor said that he does not foresee a vaccine shortage because there are several companies manufacturing it. Fortunately the vaccine is relatively inexpensive and cost effective.

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