Is a Current Rabies Vaccination Enough to Protect Dogs Exposed to Rabies?

Via a daily news brief of veterinary-related news, I learned of 12 dogs in Mooresville, North Carolina, who were put down after one of them — a puppy — contracted rabies. Many people were also exposed at a recent fish fry and are receiving treatment. The case raised a critical question: Is a current rabies vaccination enough to protect dogs exposed to rabies?

I’d always thought the answer was YES. Apparently, the reality is more complicated.

The local news article reported the following:

“The news would get even worse for Erwin when he found out Animal Control had to take 11 other dogs he owned and euthanize them. 

“Several of the dogs were current on their rabies vaccinations but all dogs still need booster shots within five days of being exposed to the disease. However, by the time Penny had been diagnosed with rabies, it was already too late.”

When I posted a link to the article on our Champion of My Heart Facebook Fan Page, it sparked many questions about why the remaining dogs were killed. I was curious about that too.

Is a Current Rabies Vaccination Enough to Protect Dogs Exposed to Rabies?

So, you know, being ME — a professional reporter. I emailed local animal control officials and asked. Here is what I found:

  • Of the 12 dogs, only 3 had a current rabies vaccination on record. North Carolina allows either a 1-year rabies vaccine (considered effective after 28 days, if it’s the first one given) or a 3-year rabies vaccine (as a “booster”).
  • The other 9 were either not current or had never received a rabies vaccine.
  • North Carolina regulations require re-vaccination within 5 days of possible exposure to / bite from a rabid animal.
  • All of the dogs were eligible for a lengthy (6 month) quarantine, but the owner did not choose that option, so the dogs were put down.
  • If the risk had been known and the booster vaccination been given before 5 days, then quarantine would not have been required for the dogs who’d had an earlier rabies vaccine plus the 5-day booster.

My thanks to Christina Royal, Iredell County’s animal services and control director for responding to my questions so quickly and thoroughly.

Why I care about dogs exposed to rabies

Lilly can NEVER receive another vaccine — due to the possible risk to her life after a near-deadly adverse vaccine reaction earlier this year. Stories like this scare me. They scare me a lot.

Use this link to access all the posts we’ve written about Lilly’s rare / dangerous adverse rabies vaccine reaction.

Rabies Exposure Rules in Colorado

So, I asked professors at Colorado State University’s Veterinary School for insights into how this scenario might play out in my home state. Many thanks to the new media contact for the vet school (Emily Narvaes Wilmsen) for the help rounding up these details:

Most public health departments follow the recommendations from the 2011 Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control. According to Dr. Rebecca Ruch Gallie at CSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, there is an rabies algorithm produced by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that essentially requires the following strategies based on the pet’s vaccination status:

The CSU team tells me that a dog exposed to a bat, skunk or fox for sufficient time for transmission will be handled based on vaccine status:

  • High risk (no vaccination): euthanize OR 180-day quarantine (1/2 at secure facility, ½ at home). Vaccinate on days 0, 21, and 60.
  • Middle risk (expired vaccination): 90-day home quarantine. Vaccinate at days 0 and 30.
  • Low risk (current vaccination): 45-day home quarantine. Vaccinate at day 0.

Emily wasn’t sure if exposure to another dog testing positive for rabies would be treated similarly, but both of us assume so.

Somewhat of a Relief

I was happy to see that only pets NEVER vaccinated for rabies are recommended for euthanasia in Colorado, BUT there’d be no way Lilly would survive ONE booster rabies vaccine … let alone multiple vaccines over 3 months.

This particular rule, I believe, would apply to Lilly, if she were somehow exposed to rabies after 2015 (when the state says her recent vaccine “expires”):

Pets with Expired Vaccinations — Animals that have 2 or more documented rabies vaccinations shall be vaccinated immediately after exposure, placed under a 90-day home quarantine, and re-vaccinated in 30 days after the initial dose.

Colorado rules say titer testing is NOT an option:

Serology – Serologic testing cannot determine whether an animal is adequately protected or if booster vaccinations are needed. Rabies virus antibody titers are indicative of a response to vaccination or infection with rabies. Although a rabies virus neutralizing antibody titer of 0.5 IU/ml may indicate an adequate immune response to vaccination, the presence of neutralizing antibodies has NOT been correlated with protection from rabies virus infection. Animals with antibody levels in excess of 0.5 IU/ml have succumbed to rabies following exposure to rabies virus, while previously vaccinated animals with antibody titers below this level have survived viral challenge. Therefore, serologic evidence of circulating rabies virus antibodies does not constitute proof of current vaccination when managing rabies exposures or determining the need for rabies booster vaccinations in domestic animals. 

balloon dog graphic for dogs exposed to rabies article

So, if we faced a rabies emergency, I fear our choices would be:

  1. Death by euthanasia
  2. Death by vaccination
  3. Another epic recovery from an adverse vaccine reactions due to multiple booster vaccines

Despite the rabies compendium’s assertions that, “No epidemiologic association exists between a particular licensed vaccine product and specific adverse events…” and that, “No contraindication to rabies vaccination exists. Animals with a previous history of anaphylaxis can be medically managed and observed after vaccination,” clearly … I have my own reasons to doubt this advice in my dog’s specific case.

Even with 24/7 ICU-type care, I’m not convinced Lilly would survive another vaccine.

What are the Rules in Your State or Community?

I’d be curious what you find if you ask about similar situations in your home state / community. Would your dog or dogs be sentenced to death? Would you be burdened with the likely costly and complicated option of a LONG quarantine?

Either way, despite the worry and expense of saving Lilly’s life these last 6 months, I am NOT anti-vaccine.

I would HIGHLY recommend you keep your pet’s rabies vaccinations current — however current is defined in your state or community.

Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

Pamela - August 14, 2012

Thank you. This post explained a lot to me. My sister got her current cat when it was involved in a fight with another animal and had to be quarantined for six months or killed. The owner of the cat didn’t want to bother with the quarantine so my sister adopted the cat and kept the quarantine.

I never really understood the situation but it sounds like the rules in Maryland are similar to what you spelled out for NC and CO.

None of the choices in your situation sound very good. Your best option is doing your best to limit Lilly’s exposure to potentially rabid wild animals. I can’t imagine how hard that is in your area.

I can’t say what I’d do if I were in your situation and Honey were exposed to rabies. I hope you never have to face that one down.

Hope you had a restful weekend with Lilly back home.

Merr - August 9, 2012

I am so glad you are reporting on this topic, and keeping up informed. It is so much more complex than average (albeit loving, caring) dog owners even know. Thank you.

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