Animal Law

Rabies Vaccination: Surviving the Bite

Dog bites can be a big pain for everyone - the victim, the dog owner and the dog. Bites from wild animals can be dangerous, too. In either case, you face the possibility of serious health problems, even death, if you're bitten.

A bite from all sorts of animals may infect you with rabies. Most states require rabies vaccinations for some animals, and the vaccination can prevent the disease and save lives, even after a bite.

Some Basics on Rabies?

Rabies is caused by a virus. The virus infects the victim's nervous system. Over time and left untreated, the victim's spinal cord and brain become severely inflamed or swollen.

How Rabies is Spread

Humans catch rabies from infected animals. The disease is spread when an infected animal's saliva comes into contact with the victim - almost always through a bite or scratch on the victim's body. It's possible, but very rare, to get rabies by having an infected animal's saliva get directly into your eyes, nose or mouth.

Symptoms of Rabies

The early symptoms of rabies include fever, headache and general weakness or discomfort. Usually the victim also feels a tingling or burning sensation at the wound site.

Left untreated, more serious symptoms appear, such as sleeplessness, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, hallucinations and difficulty swallowing. Death usually occurs within days after these serious symptoms appear.

It can take anywhere from one week to one year before you may show any symptoms.

Animals To Be Wary Of

In the US, humans rarely catch rabies from domestic pets like cats and dogs, mainly because of vaccination laws and requirements. Most cases of rabies in the US are caused by bites from infected bats, raccoons, skunks and other wild animals.

Outside the US, dogs are the number one source of rabies.

Vaccine Prevents & Stops Illness, Deaths

Like other immunizations and vaccinations, the rabies vaccine can prevent the spread of the disease. Unlike other vaccines, however, it can also stop the fatal symptoms rabies from developing after you've been bitten by an infected animal.

The vaccine itself involves a series of shots, given in your shoulder. How many shots are needed and when they're given depends on when you get the vaccine.

Protection for You

Health officials recommend that you get a rabies vaccination as a preventative measure if you:

  • Work with rabies in laboratory settings
  • Are an animal control or wildlife officer or a veterinarian
  • Plan on traveling to a country where rabies is widespread

This vaccination involves a series of three shots given over a 21- or 28- day period. After the first shot, you'll get a shot on day 7 and then one on either day 21 or 28.

After the Bite. It's absolutely critical that you act quickly once you've been bitten. Because the initial symptoms of rabies are common with many illnesses, people tend to ignore them and often die from rabies infections. You can stop rabies from developing, if, immediately after the bite, you:

  • Thoroughly clean the wound with soap and water
  • See your doctor or go to a hospital where someone can determine if the vaccine is necessary
  • Contact your local police or health department so proper measures are taken to locate and isolate the animal for rabies testing

This vaccination involves a series of six shots over a 14-day period. The first shot should come as soon as possible after the bite or exposure. You'll get the other shots 3, 7 and 14 days after the first shot.

Vaccine for Animals

Most states have laws requiring rabies vaccines (PDF) for pets like cats and dogs. Some states, like Massachusetts (PDF), require the vaccine for domesticated ferrets, too. These laws may vary a great deal from state to state, but in general:

  • The vaccination must be given within the first three to six months after the animal was born
  • Revaccination or "boosters" must be given every one or three years
  • Only veterinarians, or persons supervised by veterinarians, can give the vaccine
  • You and the veterinarian must keep a copy of a vaccination certificate or some other document as proof of vaccination
  • You face a fine, usually between $50 to $250, for not vaccinating or getting boosters for your pet
  • Your pet must be isolated for several days, usually 10, to check for rabies if it bites another person
  • Your pet may not have to be vaccinated (called an exemption) if your vet determines the vaccine poses a health risk to it

Every state is different, though. For example:

North Carolina requires:

North Dakota's state laws (PDF) are very different. For instance:

  • It's only recommended that cats, dogs, ferrets and other domestic animals (horses, cows, goats and others) be vaccinated
  • The state's health department (department) may seize, quarantine and if necessary euthanize any animal it has reason to believe has rabies
  • The department may quarantine any cat, dog or ferret for 10 days, or any domestic animal for six months, if it believes the animal has rabies

In North Dakota, it's important to check local county and city rules for specific vaccination requirements.

Rhode Island requires (PDF):

  • Vaccination of cats, dogs and ferrets when they're between three and four months old
  • Veterinarians to issue and keep copies of vaccination certificates
  • Owners to present a valid vaccination certificate when registering or licensing cats, dogs and ferrets with their city or town agencies
  • Owners to present a valid vaccination certificate when requested by state or local health officials. Officials may seize, quarantine and euthanize animals to test for rabies when certificates aren't presented

South Dakota has no state law requirement for vaccinating cats or dogs. However, owners who bring any cat or dog into the state for any period of time must have a health certificate from a veterinarian or government agency stating that the animal hasn't been exposed to rabies, has been vaccinated and other details on its health.

Other rabies-related laws include:

  • Owners face up to one year in jail and up to a $2,000 fine if they don't confine their cat or dog for at least 10 days after it has bitten another person
  • Cats and dogs infected with rabies must be euthanized
  • Cats and dogs suspected of being being bitten by another animal with rabies must be confined for at least six months. Failure to do so is punishable by one year in jail and up to a $2,000 fine

Counties and cities in South Dakota may have more specific vaccination requirements for cats, dogs and other domestic pets.

West Virginia state laws require:

  • Cats and dogs to be vaccinated between the ages of three and six months
  • Vets to keep vaccination certificates on file. Owners must keep the originals; copies must sent to the commission clerks in the owners' counties
  • Dogs must wear vaccination tags at all times
  • Owners face a fine of $10 to $50 and 10 to 60 days in jail for not vaccinating or revaccinating their cats or dogs

This is only a brief overview of the laws in these states. It's best to review all of the laws in your state for more details on vaccination requirements. Also, check your local county or city rules, or talk to a local veterinarian, to make sure your pet gets the proper vaccination.

Other Legal Concerns

As the owner, you risk other legal problems if your animal isn't vaccinated as required by law and it bites someone else. For instance, you may be required to pay the costs of veterinary care, quarantine and rabies testing. You may also have to pay the costs of victim's post-bite rabies vaccination.

On top of that, the victim may file a personal injury lawsuit to get you to pay for the victim's medical expenses, pain and suffering and other damages.

Rabies is a serious disease. Knowing how to protect yourself before and after being exposed to it, and making sure your pets are properly vaccinated, will keep you and others safe from it.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What are the rabies vaccination laws in my state?
  • Does a pet have to be euthanized or "put to sleep" if it bites someone?
  • Is the rabies vaccination in my state good in the state I'm planning to move to?
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